A tribute of respectful affection, the expression of my
In this live recording of the Verdi Requiem the Vienna Philharmonic
use modern instruments. That said, Harnoncourt pays particular
attention to historical performance practice and here uses the
Rosen critical edition of the score, published Milan, 1990.
The Requiem is spread across two CDs. This is a reflection of
Verdi’s preference for dividing the score into two halves
to allow a break, for mainly practical reasons, such as changing
around the parts of the choir.
The Messa da Requiem had its genesis in a project conceived
by Verdi in 1868 to commemorate the death of Rossini. At that
time Verdi intended a collaborative style Messa per Rossini,
whose thirteen sections would be the work of thirteen leading
church composers. Verdi’s own contribution was the concluding
part, the Libera me. The omnibus venture experienced many problems
and was never performed.
A Professor of Composition at the Milan Conservatory was deeply
impressed by Verdi’s contribution, the Libera me, and attempted
to persuade Verdi to complete the Requiem on his own. But he
seemed uninterested. A number of years later Verdi found the
stimulus for the writing of a Requiem Mass when Alessandro Manzoni,
the great Italian poet and novelist, whom Verdi greatly admired,
died, in 1873. Verdi had been captivated by Manzoni’s famous
work, I promessi sposi (The Betrothed) whilst still in his teens.
Less than a fortnight later he announced his intention of writing
a Messa da Requiem in memory of Manzoni. At this time Verdi himself
was already sixty years old and the most famous opera composer
in Italy, having already created almost all of his great operas;
Otello and Falstaff excepted. His announcement created a stir
in musical circles, and raised high expectations of a religious
masterpiece. The Libera me movement became the starting-point,
the acorn from which the oak of the present Requiem grew.
Following the sensational première in 1874 on the first
anniversary of Manzoni’s death, at the San Marco Church
in Milan, the Requiem was acclaimed both at home and around Europe.
In Italy it became so popular that it was played, at times, without
the composer’s consent, sometimes even by military bands
or even in settings for four pianos. The general critical opinion
was in favour. Many shared Brahms’ opinion that, "Only
a genius could have written such a work". There were, however,
those who were less enthusiastic. Hans von Bülow, the great
conductor, called it, "An opera in ecclesiastical vestments",
and Wagner is reported to have said, simply, "It is
better to say nothing …"
Verdi wasn’t an orthodox catholic. One may say that he
was an agnostic Christian if not an unbeliever. Eric Blom, one
of the biographers, stated that Verdi, "though not a
reformer, is a liberal minded catholic." Biographer Francis Toye expressed
the view that the Requiem, “…is not really an
ecclesiastical composition at all but a utilisation by a master
of drama of
the words of the liturgy to express the most profound emotions
of the composer.” Although the text is principally based
on the liturgical Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead it is fair
to say that the Requiem has something of the operatic about it.
However, in good performances, the dramatic/theatrical touch
only strengthens its power and is not evidence of any insincerity.
The accusations of the score being operatic are most likely rooted
in the heyday of Cecilianism, the extreme reactionary reform
movement that lashed out at anything they considered to touch
the human soul in an unchaste fashion. Despite the endeavour
for ecclesiastical purity in the work it is not surprising that
Verdi was unable totally to shed his ingrained music personality.
At several points we are clearly reminded that composing for
the opera was Verdi’s métier. The has risen above
all controversy and is now universally considered one of his
most beautiful and popular scores.
The opening is a whispered and hesitant prayer for the dead
sung here in a haunting and solemn performance. In the Kyrie (CD 1, track 1) the quartet of soloists make their grand entrance
with mixed results. We hear at 04.53 the attractive and clear
voice of Michael Schade the German-born tenor and at 05.05 the
rich warm bass tones of the Italian bass-baritone Ildebrando
d’Arcangelo. At 05.17 there is the rather shaky entrance
of Eva Mei the Italian soprano and at 05.32 the even more unsteady
tones of the Argentine born mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink. From
07.01 to 08.14 matters vastly improve and the soloists, chorus
and orchestra come together in a memorably spine-tingling collaboration.
The core of the work, the Dies irae (track 2) provides a horrifying
depiction of Judgement Day which under the expert direction of
Berlin-born conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt feels distinctly slower
in pace than the accounts from Giulini in 1963/64 at the Kingsway
Hall (EMI) and Gardiner from 1992 at the All Hallows Church (Philips).
Harnoncourt’s choice of tempi may differ from those of
Giulini and Gardiner but the results are no less convincing being
just as powerful and dramatic.
In the Tuba mirum (track 3) at 00.52 the sudden silence is broken
by the wonderful playing of the golden-toned Vienna trumpets
climaxing into a crescendo fanfare. At point 01.05 great sweeps
of power herald the impressive introduction of the percussion.
At 02.15 the bass D’Arcangelo is especially menacing, singing "Mors
stupebit et natura."
With considerable artistry Fink regains her steadiness in the
solo Liber scriptus (track 4) which is punctuated by ominous
snatches of the Dies irae until the chorus finally erupts in
a full reprisal. At 04.23 there is surely no climax to match
the wonderful eruption of Harnoncourt’s forces, not even
from Giulini’s famous Kingsway Hall account. The setting
of the Quid sum miser (track 5) section provides a welcome and
soothing mood. The section opens with the smooth-toned soprano
Eva Mei accompanied by the lilting and velvety Vienna woodwind
which continues throughout.
The exchange between the basses and the rest of the choir and
quartet in the Rex tremendae (track 6) becomes an astonishing
battle for dominance. In the gently rocking motion of the Recordare (track
7) the beautiful duet between soprano and mezzo poignantly reflects
on the Passion of Christ.
Their voices blend marvellously although their vibrato becomes
rather marked when forced. The famous tenor solo Ingemisco (track
8) is impressively sung and once again the accompaniment from
the Vienna woodwind is first rate.
D’Arcangelo in his bass solo Confutatis (track 9) is secure
and sturdy, convincingly oscillating between the required condemnation
and compassion. Of special note is the Oro supplex which is one
of the most poignantly beautiful melodies in the score. Another
reprisal of the opening of the Dies irae and at 04.27 Harnoncourt’s
climax from the Vienna Orchestra is especially powerful and the
joining of the choir at 04.32 is impressively controlled. The
movement closes with the sombre Lacrymosa (track 10). From her
entrance at 00.05 the silky tones of Eva Mei are particularly
moving with the words "Lacrymosa dies illa."
The Domine Jesu and Hostias (CD 2, tracks 1-2) of the Offertorio features a quartet that displays impeccable teamwork. The playing
Harnoncourt draws from the Vienna Philharmonic is outstanding.
In the Sanctus (track 3) the choir makes a joyful return with
focused and thrilling singing. The section closes with a rousing "Hosanna
in excelsis" to flourishing brass accompaniment.
The Agnus Dei (track 4) commences with a transfixing unaccompanied
duet for the two soloists, set an octave apart. Now presented
at their finest, Mei and Fink impart radiant and cohesive singing.
The Lux aeterna (track 5) trio for the mezzo, tenor and bass
is accompanied by the rustling of tremolo strings. Of particular
note is the stark contrast between Fink’s peaceful line
in which she impresses with her firmness and consistency and
the ominous bass of the striking d’Arcangelo.
The final, dramatic movement begins with the anguished declamation
from the soprano in the Libera me (track 6) where Mei effortlessly
negotiates her demanding part. This is full of emotion: grief,
fear, guilt, despair, hope and repentance. In track 7, Verdi
summarises what has gone before as he re-introduces parts of
the memorable Dies irae theme and the opening Requiem passage.
At 02.35-05.38 the soprano and unaccompanied chorus recall the
Requiem aeterna. Eva Mei is magnificent with beautifully shaded
singing that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
In the Libera me (track 8) after a tremendous eruption of sound
at 04.58 the score gradually closes as it began, in near silence
with the final pleas of the splendid Mei and the fading accompaniment
of the Arnold Schoenberg Choir.
With this stunning and moving performance maestro Harnoncourt
continues to display his impeccable credentials as one of today’s
finest conductors. This live account ranks with the three special
versions that I cherish from my own collection:
a) Carlo Maria Giulini and the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus
with soloists Schwarzkopf, Ludwig, Gedda and Ghiaurov recorded
at the Kingsway Hall, London in 1963 and 1964 on EMI Classics
b) John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire
et Romantique (using period instruments), the Monteverdi Choir
with soloists Orgonasova, Von Otter, Canonici and Miles recorded
at the All Hallows Church, London in 1992 on Philips 442 142-2.
c) Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, the
Swedish Radio Chorus, the Ericson Chamber Choir with soloists
Gheorghiu, Barcellona, Alagna and Konstantinov recorded at
the Philharmonie, Berlin in 2001 on EMI Classics 5571682.
Played on my standard CD player I was highly impressed with
the sound quality of this BMG release which I found clear and
exceptionally well balanced. Although no audience noise is noticeable
this recording was produced from live performances at the Grosser
Saal, Musikverein, Vienna in December 2004. The booklet notes
are of a high standard with full texts and English translations
This is a recording of Verdi’s Requiem that gave me considerable
pleasure. It will sit proudly in my collection. Enthusiastically