Maybe the first thing you'll notice about this two-CD set is
the high quality of its analogue sound - overall: there is an
exception. Walter Legge's classic original recorded over a dozen
or so sessions almost 50 years ago has been digitally re-mastered
by EMI's Simon Gibson (the Requiem) and Allan Ramsay
(the Four Sacred Pieces). These are, by and large, expert
jobs which bring out the relative balances between soloists,
instrumentalists, chorus and orchestra. Perhaps inevitably,
the result is as operatic and full of impact as is required
by the saw that 'the Requiem is Verdi's greatest opera'.
Giulini's is neither an unduly slow nor a breathtakingly up-tempo
Requiem. It's an account which - like Pappano's recent
successful reading also on EMI (98936) - eschews spectacle and
delves straight into the spiritual. And somehow it's an all-embracing
spiritual dimension, not one which necessarily celebrates specifically
the contrast between life and death. Ludwig's Liber scriptus
[CD.1 tr.5], for example, is sung as she might have sung a Handel
aria: finger ready to wag, but held firm, eye-contact throughout,
each syllable articulated because it conveys a familiar import,
of which the singer is well aware. The result is authoritative,
profound, convincing and … chilling. But chilling because the
strings (and deadly timps) support not the idea of prophetic
judgement in abstract, or its power as a warning. But they reinforce
If a mark of a good Requiem is that it sends shivers
down your spine, then this is a good one! From the climaxes
in the Rex Tremendae [CD.1 tr.7] to the final, almost
spat-out Libera me [CD.2 trs 2-4]. But there has to be
substance for the potentially just rhetorical to yield to the
meaningful. And substance there is. For all the weaknesses of
Schwarzkopf, whose voice doesn't quite have the power even to
hold its own, let alone overwhelm in the climaxes, she has strengths.
They're strengths of commitment; and, that quality again, of
real, sublime authority in the less extrovert moments
such as the Recordare [CD.1 tr.8] and of sublime loveliness
when she sings with Ludwig.
Gedda's tenor line throughout is breathtaking: he, too, brings
out the humanity intended by Verdi when setting the text of
the Requiem. In particular, Gedda is totally in tune
with the dynamic markings required by Verdi. It's so easy for
performers to 'compete' with the score (and with one another;
let alone with the conductor) in bombast, volume and attack.
There is none of that here although when one line requires staccato,
say, and its companion legato, Giulini ensures that both
singers observe the contrast.
The Quattro Pezzi Sacri use the same orchestral and choral
forces, though with a very unobtrusive Janet Baker as mezzo.
This, too, is lovely music. The interpretation and recording
show how - in the right hands - it can touch heights that seem
not to have been reached since. The hand of Giulini is light
yet completely in control although there are one or two unfortunately
It's a pity that the booklet which comes with the CDs is slim
in content, contains more about the details of the Requiem's
composition than about what makes this recording so special:
no text, no details of the performers. In the copy received
for review the fortissimo passages - especially in the
Dies Irae and its reprise - were marred by extreme acoustic
distortion (clipping). It's not clear whether this was in the
original tapes, or - less likely - introduced in re-mastering.
But it spoils those passages and will probably be unacceptable
for most listeners.
It seems unlikely, though possible, that Giulini was aiming
for a recording that would consistently justify its place on
many people's 'Greatest Recordings of All Time' list. He was
too involved in relaying the rich palette of emotions, in revealing
Verdi's command of musical forms and attachment to their liturgical
thrust to think of the future. Yet this recording, now reissued
at mid-price, will remain on such a list. It will continue to
represent an iconic and exemplary account of one of the nineteenth
century's most enlivening yet comforting choral works. This
is also an interpretation to return to again and again for the
way in which the singing and playing combine to offer a spiritual,
humanly rich message through mere notes on the page.