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CD: AmazonUK AmazonUS
Download: Classicsonline

Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Requiem (1874) [84:19]
Anja Harteros (soprano); Sonia Ganassi (mezzo); Rolando Villazon (tenor); René Pape (bass)
Coro e Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia/Antonio Pappano
rec. in concert, 8-13 January 2009, Sala Santa Cecilia, Auditorium Parco della Musica, Rome
EMI CLASSICS 698936 2 [47:29 + 37:50]
Experience Classicsonline

Most us in the UK tend to know Pappano best from his operatic work, be it as Music Director of the Royal Opera or through his highly acclaimed studio recordings for EMI. His more recent work as boss of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome has drawn mixed comment as his purely orchestral CDs have shown. This release draws together the best of both these worlds. Pappano has given us a Verdi Requiem that may not replace the greats of the past but is certainly worthy to set alongside them. It showcases his abilities at their finest.

The eternal problem with Verdi’s Requiem is where to point your focus: is it a work of spiritual devotion or of operatic emotionalism? The earliest recorded interpreters, notably Toscanini, played it as a hell-for-leather assault on heaven which took no prisoners. Then Giulini’s classic 1964 set for EMI showed that it was possible, and indeed just as powerful, to see it as a heartfelt prayer of intense devotion. Most performances have tended to follow one camp or the other, but Pappano does a very good job of addressing both. The opening sigh on the strings and the hushed whisper of the Requiem aeternam is intensely moving and very well considered, establishing a firmly penitential mood. However the faster movements, not least the Dies Irae and Sanctus blaze with dramatic fire of an altogether different kind. The high point of the drama comes with the Rex tremendae, whose cries of “Salva me” echo off one another in an exciting but also profoundly disturbing way. Importantly, though, Pappano manages to provide the electricity without the showiness: it feels that this excitement is an extension of the devotional aspect, albeit of a very different kind. The final Libera me is a great instance of this: after Harteros’ breathless introduction the choral fugue takes off at a rate of knots, but this never feels like mere virtuosic display. Instead it enhances the intensity of the prayer for deliverance as the chorus beg repeatedly not to be forgotten on that great and terrible day of judgement.

The conductor’s personal stamp lies at the heart of this recording. Whether in choice of tempi or in sharpness of attack everything about this performance feels incontrovertibly right. There is never a hint of muddiness in the textures, and in this Pappano is helped by a magnificent recording. The engineers have done an excellent job of picking up every possible orchestral detail so that in the great climaxes of the Dies Irae you can hear everything with absolute clarity, but even the gentler moments reveal little details, such as the pizzicato sequences in the Sanctus which I had simply never noticed before. This would count for little were the orchestral playing not so secure. The grand moments are ear-splittingly intense, but it is the quieter moments that stick in my memory: the winds in the Quid sum miser or the slow-dying end of the Offertorio. The intensity of the chords which end the Lachrymosa will live with you for a while. Broadly the choral singing is very good indeed. Indeed it improves as the performance progresses. The intense Requiem aeternam is followed by a slightly imprecise Te decet hymnus but the real rigours of the Sanctus and Libera me are executed with aplomb and, as I’ve mentioned, the final fugue forms a fitting climax to the work.

The solo quartet broadly chimes in with Pappano’s devotional vision. The only question mark is over Villazon, who at first seems unable to divorce himself from the theatricality for which he is so renowned. His contribution to the opening Kyrie is certainly fresh, but it feels mannered and very obvious. The Ingemisco might as well be an aria for Hoffmann or Rodolfo. He mellows his approach as the work progresses, though, and by the time of the Hostias his tone has become altogether more spiritual and uplifting. Either way the voice is still fresh and exciting to hear. René Pape’s bass is a revelation. He is truly sepulchral in the Mors stupebit and towards its end he is not afraid to shade his voice down to a mere whisper. The second “stanza” of the Confutatis is altogether more subtle, penitential even, than the first and he sounds positively threatening during his declamations in the Lux aeterna. Sonia Ganassi also wears her heart on her sleeve: she sounds worried, almost frantic during the Liber scriptus, and she blends well with her colleagues in the Rex tremendae. Like Villazon, however, she becomes more spiritual as the work progresses and her leadership of the Lux aeterna is bright and pure. Finest of all, however, is Anja Harteros. She lends magnificent colour to the solo ensembles, and her solo tone arches high and clear above all the others, like a soul striving heavenwards. She is at her very finest in the Libera me: the opening recitative-like passage is delivered with conviction and cold seriousness, but she floats her voice with gorgeous restraint during the reprise of the Requiem aeternam. Her pleading acquires a new air of desperation during the final fugue and she sees to it that the peace which settles over the final bars is a decidedly uneasy one. She crowns what many will see as the most satisfying solo quartet of recent years.

So where does it fit into the wider pantheon of Verdi Requiems? Well in terms of modern recordings it is very close to the top. Abbado’s Berlin recording (EMI 2002) has excellent choral singing but a rather odd quartet of soloists with neither Angela Gheorghiu nor Roberto Alagna quite connecting with the spiritual aspect of the work. Muti’s 1987 recording from La Scala has a more satisfying set of soloists and gains in intensity from being a live event, though few would believe that it is a religious work. Either way it is far preferable to his Philharmonia recording of 1979 which has coarse sound and a very unconvincing soprano (Renata Scotto) and bass (Evgeny Nesterenko). In terms of older recordings, I retain huge affection for Solti’s Vienna set from 1968 on Decca. Yes, it’s undeniably operatic, but in terms of sheer good singing its solo quartet (Sutherland, Horne, Pavarotti, Talvela) is nothing short of excellent. At the other extreme Fritz Reiner’s Decca set of 1959, also from Vienna, is more spiritually intense with a thoughtful and searching quartet (Leontyne Price, Rosalind Elias, Jussi Björling and Giorgio Tozzi) though with somewhat hissy sound. Karajan’s recordings are all a little soupy, but he made an excellent DVD from La Scala on DG which demands to be seen. On the other hand John Eliot Gardiner’s Philips recording with the ORR and Monteverdi Choir is guaranteed to blow off the cobwebs with its lean textures and careful tempi, but it’s one to turn to once you already know the work well.

In terms of classic recordings Giulini’s 1964 set probably still remains the benchmark, but Pappano has established himself as the leading interpreter of our day with excellent playing and singing and the benefit of modern digital sound. He is certainly one to be reckoned with and anyone who loves this work or who cares about the performers can turn to this with confidence.

Simon Thompson

Jack Buckley has also listened to this recording
Tullio Serafin used to maintain that at the Italian opera you went to Verdi for drama but to Rossini for music. He might well have had the Verdi Requiem in mind when he made that slander. Though you could hardly guess it, Rossini was something of a mentor for Verdi. Verdi's first thoughts for a Requiem were on the death of Rossini, but those thoughts (part of a complex joint-composition comission with other composers) were then left to rest, and only finally realized for the first anniversary of the death of Italy's venerated statesman and novelist, Alessandro Manzoni.

Verdi was a Roman Catholic but as with everything else he was a Roman Catholic on his own terms. At best, he might be described as an amateur catholic. He seems to have recognised the fundamental truths underlying at least some of the doctrine, much in the same way that many northern Europeans appreciate Freud: take what is blatantly unchallengeable with its roots healthily evident in ancient cultures and leave the rest. And herein enters the partial truth of Serafin’s insight. For Verdi’s drama is centred on tragedy, which was invented in its theatrical dress by ancient Greece. At the centre of all tragedy is death and by the end of his life Verdi was an acknowledged master in this sphere. The challenge was to play off the terror of death with the peace of eternity. The stage was set. And Verdi doesn’t disappoint.

Neither does Antonio Pappano, who seems to have grasped all this. The orchestra and chorus of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia respond magnificently to their chief conductor’s admirable sense of thrust and drama. The recording was made during three live performances in Rome in January 2009. I remember the performance of Sunday 11 January as an unforgettable, landmark rendition of this masterpiece. It pains me to report that the EMI recording delivers less than this.

For anyone familiar with East European or British choruses, the chorus of Santa Cecilia will disappoint. That was the case in the live performance and they sound even more flabby and less focused recorded than they did live. And Verdi makes it clear that the chorus is the protagonist. Certain deficiencies become amplified in recording, and sadly, that has happened here.

There is, however, a reason to choose this recording above certain others, in addition to Pappano’s profound grasp of the Requiem: three of the four soloists convey the unique Verdian passion better than any others. Like all real virtuosos, the German-Greek soprano, Anja Harteros, makes this monstrously difficult music sound easy. The famous pianissimo top B flat leap had a rare beauty and ethereal touch - that transportation to heaven intended by the composer; Rolando Villazon is at his finest, with Caruso alone as his rival and René Pape anchors the quartet with his familiar reassuring tones. There were close to three thousand in the audience on 11 January and we were overawed by this vocal excellence. 

The recording engineers are less than satisfactory in transmitting all this. On the other hand, the mezzo-soprano, Sonia Ganassi, who sounded one dimensional in the hall, seems to have gained some more colour and musical sense in the recording. But I have to remember that I was only present at one of the three performances taken. Gain some and lose others seems to be the name of the game when it comes to recording. For all that, these are CDs that any admirer of the Verdi Requiem will probably want to have. Antonio Pappano, the Santa Cecilia Orchestra and three of the four soloists have something to tell you about this masterpiece that you haven’t heard before.  

Jack Buckley 



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