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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Messa de Requiem (1874) [80.44]
Julia Varady (soprano); Felicity Palmer (mezzo); Keith Olsen (tenor); Roberto Scandiuzzi (bass)
Orfeón Donostiarra Choir
Toulouse Capitole Orchestra/Michel Plasson
rec. Eglise Notre-Dame La Daurade, Toulouse, 2-5 July 1996. DDD.
EMI CLASSICS 56459 [67.31 + 13.13]
Experience Classicsonline

This is a recording that would seem to hold out much promise when one reads the details on paper: a reputable orchestra under their chief conductor, who has a flair for large-scale pieces, an often-recorded choir, and a quartet of notable solo vocalists. Alas, quickly it became apparent for me that this that would not fully live up to those expectations. It is a somewhat mixed affair, and that can be attributed to a couple of individual factors. Let me temper this subdued opening with the ever-present consideration of personal taste: what I specifically dislike others may find appealing. So keep reading, one and all.
Imagine, if you will, that you are to conduct Verdi’s Requiem Mass. The central question that defines any performance is this: is it to be a “reverential” performance or an “operatic” one? Any conductor must decide broadly where they stand and convince their performers to take a similar path.   Plasson’s preference is for a reverential performance, which is to say it’s one that brings out much of the religious impetus behind the music. Of course, the work has its moments of near-operatic drama no matter how it’s performed, but these take second place in the order of priorities.
The opening Requiem is affecting in its tenderness, but when the four-part chorus opens up to a mezzo-forte the Achilles heel of the recording is revealed: too much reverberation intrudes from the  Eglise Notre-Dame La Daurade. At full forte this is a performance that gives the work with the broadest of gestures. The Dies Irae finds the choir hitting the notes, but even the keenest ears would be hard pushed to distinguish any of the words they sing for some of the time. The bass drum sounds like it’s placed in a cavernous recess, rather than belting forth for all it is worth, as Muti’s 1979 EMI recording has it doing. You feel the terror of Judgement Day in no uncertain terms there. Even though Plasson uses the atmosphere well with for the Tuba Mirum, he still makes less impact than Muti, whose achievement is increased by more incisive pacing and better playing. It’s pretty much the same with Muti’s later live recording for EMI also – recorded in Teatro all Scala, it suffers few of the acoustic problems that afflict Plasson. Those that know the work can easily foretell the points when their imagination will be needed to fill in textural clarity that even a thirty year old studio recording provides with ease: Sanctus, Libera Me, … Even the classic Giulini studio set sounds a bit dated (1963/4) but it wants for little in terms of focus at such moments. Other live recordings from 1961 and 1963 also offer similar focus at crucial times. Final small gripe about the conducting: just occasionally rests are felt where none are written: Libera Me, first chorus entry. Momentary though they are, they detract from the drama and musical momentum.
Soloists: two good, two not so good. Julia Varady sings with commitment and precision throughout. The voice is caught in excellent shape, even if she can open up the tone a little too readily above mezzo-forte. That said, it’s hard to avoid doing so given what the soloist is asked to sing – particularly in the Libera Me. Varady floats and blends her voice well with her colleagues also – her tone does not quite have the edge of Scotto (earlier Muti) or quite the opulence of Studer (later Muti). 
By contrast Felicity Palmer can sound something of a harridan, which is most unfortunate, because she is anything but that when heard live in my experience. The Liber scriptus is a bit too insistent, whereas the Recordare comes off with more subtlety.
Keith Olsen is not an Italianate tenor. He’s as far from Gigli (Serafin 1939 on EMI or Naxos Historical) or Pavarotti (later Muti) as one could imagine. His thin, hard tones do him few favours in such company – and much less so when Helge Rosvaenge (Karajan, 1948 on Preisler) and Carlo Cossutto (Karajan, 1975 on DG) are the comparisons. Alagna for Abbado has a brave stab at the part.
At the time of making this recording, Roberto Scandiuzzi was in his prime as a bass. Therefore, he’s an asset – or at least he would be if the acoustic did not do so much to undermine his performance. In the Confutatis maledictis and elsewhere he’s lost in a sea of ambient fog which robs him of presence and authority. Pinza (Serafin 1939) remains the touchstone for many, me included; though Nesterenko for Muti (1979) runs him a close second in the authority stakes.
Despite the good intentions at the heart of this set, whichever way one examines it the results simply do not deliver enough to secure a recommendation.
Evan Dickerson


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