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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Messa da Requiem (1874) [86:39]
Elizabeth Connell (soprano)
Ameral Gunson (mezzo)
Edmund Barham (tenor)
John Tomlinson (bass)
Brighton Festival Chorus and Royal Choral Society
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Owain Arwel Hughes
rec. live, St. Paul's Cathedral, London, March 1994
Gioacchino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Stabat Mater (1832/42) [51:40]
Pilar Lorengar (soprano)
Betty Allen (alto)
Josef Traxel (tenor)
Josef Greindl (bass)
Choir of St. Hedwig's Cathedral
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Karl Forster
rec. Grünewaldkirsche, Berlin, June 1960
EMI CLASSICS FOR PLEASURE 3759362 [66:33 + 71:46]


Experience Classicsonline

The coupling looks sensible - and certainly generous - enough, but the performances in question prove oddly matched.

The Verdi preserves a concert performance at St. Paul's Cathedral, perhaps one marking some ceremonial occasion, although no details of this are given. Nevertheless, since the one-shot concert was deemed sufficiently important for recorded documentation - with corporate sponsorship by J.P. Morgan and Company, no less - it was presumably of some moment. 

The cathedral acoustic is less of a liability than one might have feared. Soft string playing - the opening of the piece, say, or the tremolos that begin the Ingemisco and the Lux aeterna - doesn't come across clearly; if you boost the volume to compensate, the louder passages blast. A few climaxes turn opaque; the entries in the Sanctus fugue stand out, but their continuations don't. Otherwise, detail is surprisingly clear - the liquid textures of the Lux aeterna actually come through better than in some studio productions. The venue's vast ambient space certainly makes for a sense of occasion, though loud chords have an unusually long overhang. 

Owain Arwel Hughes leads an accomplished, warmly felt performance. Here and there, his treatment of this or that passage doesn't seem quite traditional, as with the deliberate pacing of the Kyrie after 8:24, for example. On the other hand, the slashing brasses and rhythmic thrust of the Dies irae will elicit no complaints from Italians - though its returns sound less distinctive - and he has an excellent feel for the undulating rhythmic shapes of the Quid sum miser. One wishes the conductor had held the general silences a bit longer - he tends to begin the next phrase before the long echo from the preceding one has died out, though I suppose that was almost inevitable. 

Among the soloists, I rather liked Edmund Barham's compact, ringy, neatly produced tenor, striking a good balance between Mediterranean ardor and British "cool".  The beginning of the Hostias, however, is gummy and tentative - perhaps he was having as much trouble hearing the soft tremolos in the cathedral as we are! John Tomlinson could still muster plenty of vocal clout in 1994 - though his extensive manipulation of the closed vowels is a sign of the problems to come - and his delivery is authoritative. 

Elizabeth Connell has many nice moments in the soprano part, though perhaps not enough of them. She knows how to turn into the upper voice with a pleasing, heady spin, but doesn't have reliable access to it, so the peaks of the Quid sum miser and the a cappella quartet, Pie Jesu Domine, betray strain. She also tends to back off the voice in the lowest phrases - perhaps trying to avoid vocal positions associated with her previous mezzo avatar - which not only undercuts critical cadences, but has implications for her support and stamina. And, indeed, she has trouble maintaining pitch in the final Requiem aeternam reprise. 

Ameral Gunson's narrow-bore mezzo lacks the sort of Italianate sweep and expansiveness that this music would seem to require. The upper range, as recorded, is clear and sopranoish; the lower notes, however, turn weak and diffuse, except when she reinforces them with a harsh if plausible chest mix, probably the better solution. She sings capably and cleanly, but sounds vaguely out of place, though less so than did Dame Janet Baker on Solti's RCA recording. 

The two massed choruses acquit themselves well, with only a few uncertain moments; the fugues in the Sanctus and the Libera me are competent and assured. All in all, this Requiem is not directly comparable to any of the studio recordings; it'll serve better as a memento than as a general library performance. 

At least Karl Forster's Rossini here finds itself in more congenial company than it did on an earlier Rouge et Noir twofer, entitled Stabat Mater, where it sat uncomfortably alongside Poulenc and Szymanowski. After the Verdi, though, its vivid early stereo sound is an ear-opener - if you're listening straight through, remember to turn down the volume! The conductor doesn't make the mistake of adopting a reverent, "devotional" style. This music is, basically, old-fashioned Italian opera, and Forster plays it accordingly: within a framework of disciplined musicality, he lets the hurdy-gurdy rhythms propel the phrases forward, and doesn't shrink from the indicated dynamic contrasts. 

In this solo team, the soprano stands out: Pilar Lorengar intones her lines clearly and firmly in a gleaming soprano that dominates the quartet passages. Her fast vibrato, which hadn't yet loosened and widened in 1960, adds intensity to her assured Inflammatus. Josef Traxel, too, sings creditably, although his bright tenor, built around closed Germanic vowels, may not be to everyone's taste. His forward placement throws the opening quartet out of kilter whenever he approaches the top of the staff; on the other hand, it makes for a secure Cujus animam. His A-flats aren't really free, but he gets some spin on the D-flat in the cadenza. 

The American mezzo, Betty Allen, had an extensive concert and recital career, but recorded little. Her solo lines in the Quis est homo duet sound parched and unresonant, but she sings the wider-ranging Fac ut portem handsomely, if with a touch of strain at the top, and her contribution to the ensembles is solid. 

The tonal blend of the St. Hedwig's choir is excellent, and their enunciation is surprisingly clear for such a large outfit. But they don't quite nail the tricky tuning in Eja, mater, fons amoris, not helped by Josef Greindl, whose wooden bass doesn't always "speak" dead center on the leaps. 

The Berlin Philharmonic's lustrous playing is a plus. The deep, churchly acoustic, unsurprisingly, turns opaque as the sonorities expand; strangely, however, it doesn't obscure the parts in the final fugue, presumably via some engineering sleight-of-hand. The bass is a bit boomy, as was frequently the case on pre-Philharmonie Berlin recordings. 

So - a souvenir Verdi, and an almost-right Rossini. Whether this constitutes a good investment at CfP prices is your decision. For the Rossini, however, it's worth hunting down the Schippers (Sony) version, with the New York Philharmonic and an impressive New York-based solo quartet.

Stephen Francis Vasta



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