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CD: Crotchet

Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Messa da Requiem (1874) [88:45]
Gré Brouwenstijn (soprano); Oralia Dominguez (mezzo); Giuseppe Zampieru (tenor); Nicola Zaccaria (bass)
Chorus and Orchestra WDR Köln/Georg Solti
rec. live, Köln, 17 November 1958
Bonus Tracks
Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
L’italiana in Algeri - Overture [7.23]
Semiramide - Overture [11.23]
Amilcare PONCHIELLI (1834-1886)
La Gioconda - Dance of the hours [8.41]
Jacques OFFENBACH (1819-1880)
Les Contes d’Hoffmann - Barcarolle [4.03]
Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden/Georg Solti
rec. studio, 1958
Experience Classicsonline

Verdi was not a religious man. Indeed, it is fair to say he was, like many contemporary artists and republicans, anti-clerical and particularly anti-Pope. They held the latter view in response to the activities of holders of the Papal office over the period of the fight for Italy’s unification and independence. Verdi equally clearly recognised the place of the Catholic Church in then contemporary society. Verdi revered two compatriots, fellow composer Rossini and the writer Manzoni. At the death of each he proposed the composition of a Requiem (see review). That for Rossini was to be a collaborative venture among contemporary Italian composers. Verdi wrote the Libera Me but problems arose in respect of the chorus and orchestra and the project floundered. Verdi met the costs incurred.

In the year of Rossini’s death Verdi visited his idol Alessandro Manzoni. He had read Manzoni’s novel I Promessi Sposi when aged sixteen and in his fifty-third year wrote to a friend: “… according to me, (he) has written not only the greatest book of our time but one of the greatest books that ever came out of the human brain.” The novel has been described as representing for Italians all of Scott, Dickens and Thackeray rolled into one and infused with the spirit of Tolstoy. It was not merely the nature of Manzoni’s partly historical story that gave the work this ethos, but the language. With it Manzoni made vital steps towards a national Italian language to replace the many dialects and foreign administrative languages present in the peninsula.

When Manzoni died in May 1873, after a fall, Verdi was devastated to the extent he could not go to the funeral. A week after the funeral Verdi went to Milan and visited the grave alone. Then, through his publisher, Ricordi, he proposed to the Mayor of Milan that he should write a Requiem Mass to honour Manzoni to be performed in Milan on the first anniversary of the writer’s death. There would be no committee this time. Verdi proposed that he himself would compose the entire Mass, pay the expenses of preparing and printing the music, specify the church for the first performance, choose the singers and chorus, rehearse them and conduct the premiere; the city would pay the cost of the performance. Thereafter the Requiem would belong to Verdi. The city accepted with alacrity.

With artistic unity guaranteed by a single composer, Verdi intended the work to have a regular place in the repertoire just like his operas and other works. Although he had already composed a Libera Me for the abortive Rossini Requiem Verdi largely re-wrote it thus ensuring compositional coherence. He selected the Church of San Marco for the premiere, considering it to have the best proportions and acoustics. On 22 May 1874, the first anniversary of Manzoni’s death, with an orchestra of one hundred and chorus of one hundred and twenty the Requiem was given and acclaimed. Three days later Verdi conducted another performance at La Scala. The Requiem is certainly not in the tradition of ecclesiastical works set to counterpoint and fugues, a fact that at least some purists considered did not distract the listener from the religious message. Despite criticisms of this nature the Requiem travelled to Paris where Verdi was made a Commander of the Legion of Honour. After Paris, London and Vienna followed with the work received with great success in each.

The Manzoni Requiem, as it is often called, has been referred to by some cynics as Verdi’s best opera! Certainly the greatest recorded performances seem to have been under the baton of renowned opera conductors. After a long apprenticeship, extended by the Second World War, Solti made his name as music director, first of the Munich (1946-1952) and then of the Frankfurt Opera (1952-1961) and particularly in the German repertoire. This brought him to the notice of Decca who signed him up to conduct the first ever complete recording of Wagner’s Ring cycle. He seemed then, and later, to lack the same depth of empathy with the Italian school of composers including Verdi.

Whilst Giulini’s studio recording of the work from the same period (EMI) has a unity of near spiritual essence, Solti’s interpretation, as evidenced here is anything but unified. It varies greatly in both tempi and modulation. As in his later studio recording for Decca (411-944-2), he whips up a passion in the Dies Irae (CD 1 tr.2) whilst elsewhere he is unduly languorous as in the Lacrimosa (Cd 1 tr.11). Added to this variability is the quality of the solo singing and the acoustic. The whole is set in a resonant acoustic. The orchestra are placed well back on the sound-stage with the chorus and soloists set behind and often overwhelmed. Gré Brouwenstijn, so distinguished in Giulini’s incomparable live recording of Don Carlo from Covent Garden (see review) in May 1958, is vocally distinctly more variable with a lack of steadiness. She sounds strained at times as well as exhibiting a tendency to scoop up to notes (CD 1 tr.2 and CD 2 tr.3). The mezzo Oralia Dominguez has a steadier and welcome creamy tone. Of the men Nicola Zaccaria is sonorous with his mors stupebit in the Tuba mirum (Cd.1 t.4). Giuseppe Zampieru has no particular vocal distinction or phrasing in the Ingemisco (Cd 1 tr.8).

If at this stage of his career I find Solti to have little empathy for Verdi, then he has even less for Rossini being far too metronomic in approach. He treats the bonus tracks as orchestral showpieces as he might in the days when an orchestral concert consisted of an overture, a concerto and a symphony. That approach is valid in this way. However, after hearing these pieces in the context of complete performances, as is our privilege courtesy of the various recorded media of our day, expectations of integration of composer style are much higher. Solti’s exaggerated dynamics are not welcome. That said, these pieces do have the benefit of a more normal recorded sound.

Robert J Farr

Reviews of Verdi's Requiem on Musicweb



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