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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Messa da Requiem for soprano, mezzo, tenor, bass, chorus and orchestra (1868-69/1873-75) [87.43]
CD 1
1.I. Requiem and Kyrie; II. Sequenz: Dies irae:
2. Dies irae
3. Tuba mirum
4. Liber scriptus
5. Quid sum miser
6. Rex tremendae
7. Recordare
8. Ingemisco
9. Confutatis
10. Lacrymosa
CD 2
1. III. Offertorio
2. Hostias
3. IV. Sanctus
4. V. Agnus Die
5. VI. Lux aeterna
6. VII. Libera me
7. Dies irae
8. Libera me
Eva Mei, soprano
Bernarda Fink, mezzo
Michael Schade, tenor
Ildebrando d’Arcangelo, bass
The Arnold Schoenberg Choir
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
rec. live Grosser Saal, Musikverein, Vienna, Austria, 6-11 Dec 2004. DDD
RCA RED SEAL SACD 82876 61244 2 [47:15 + 40:28]

A tribute of respectful affection, the expression of my sorrow. Verdi

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 CMS5675602.
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 included.

This is a recording of Verdi’s Requiem that gave me considerable pleasure. It will sit proudly in my collection. Enthusiastically recommended.

Michael Cookson



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