Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Messa da Requiem (1874) [89:38]
Barbara Frittoli (soprano); Olga Borodina (mezzo); Mario Zeffiri (tenor); Ildar Abdrazakov (bass)
Chicago Symphony Chorus; Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Riccardo Muti
rec. live, 15-17 January 2009, Symphony Center, Chicago
Latin text and English, French, German translations included
CSO RESOUND CSOR 901 1008 SACD [48:31 + 41:13]
Riccardo Muti became the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s tenth Music Director at the start of the 2010/11 season. Disappointingly, his tenure had scarcely begun when he was obliged to cancel all his autumn engagements with the orchestra, due to ill health. It is to be hoped that this will be merely a temporary setback to the relationship. This recording of the Verdi Requiem, though taken from performances given before he took up the music directorship, is issued to mark the start of his appointment.
By a curious irony, on the morning that I sat down at my computer to type up this review I looked first at MusicWeb International and found there the review by Mark Sealey of the latest reincarnation of EMI’s classic Giulini recording of the same work. That was the recording with which I grew up and I agree with most of what Mark had to say about it, including the reservations. In fact, I think that in a number of ways Giulini’s interpretation of the work is heard to even better advantage on two live recordings issued by BBC Legends, either the 1963 account (review) or, even more so, the 1964 performance (review). It has always seemed to me that Giulini captures the essence of this work with particular success though several other conductors, ranging as widely as Toscanini and Sir John Eliot Gardiner, have set down memorable interpretations. But though I retain my affection and admiration for Giulini’s way with the Requiem I was very keen to hear Muti’s reading.
Muti has established a formidable reputation over the years as a Verdi conductor in the opera house and he’s also a noted interpreter of the Requiem. If I remember correctly, he made a recording of the work for EMI when he was Music Director of the Philharmonia Orchestra. So the work was a logical choice for him to programme with the Chicago orchestra, especially as it gave him an early chance to work also with the CSO’s celebrated chorus.
The Muti strikes me as being more overtly dramatic than Giulini’s conception. That’s not to say that Giulini played down the work’s dramatic (or operatic) side - certainly not during the early 1960s, at any rate - but Giulini had a somewhat more reflective approach. You can get a good idea of Muti’s approach from his comments in the booklet. Actually I only read these after I’d listened to the performance but, having heard him conduct the work, his reflections on it came as no great surprise. He has this to say; “Verdi reflects the way we Italians communicate with God, which is very dramatic. When we are in a church, we are on our knees, but we don’t ask God to help us and to give us eternal freedom - we demand it.” Later on, he says: “The Verdi Requiem is a fight between men, women, and God. We ask God to take responsibility, and even when we pray to him in the most tender way, his answer is always aggressive and without pity.” I wonder whether all of Muti’s fellow countrymen - let alone Christian believers of other nationalities - would endorse the last few words of that last statement. But it seems to be his view of the relationship between Italians and the Deity and clearly it colours his approach to this particular work.
However, the interpretation we hear doesn’t turn out to be quite so no-holds-barred as those comments might lead one to expect. The big dramatic moments are extremely exciting: the Dies Irae, for example, explodes in sulphurous vehemence and the Chicago brass section is resplendent and biting in the Tuba Mirum. But just as noteworthy is Muti’s care for expressive detail. Thus in the Liber scriptus, when the mezzo soloist sings ‘Judex ergo cum sedebit’ I can’t recall hearing the accompanying string chords weighted and accented quite so precisely as Muti does it (CD 1, track 5 from 2:43). There are many other, similarly felicitous touches.
There are however occasions when the detail is overdone. Perhaps the most glaring examples occur in the Libera me. After the soloist’s opening incantation the chorus murmurs “Libera me, Domine…”, their music notated mainly in quavers and marked senza misura (CD 2, track 5, from 0:26). This passage is taken more slowly than I can ever recall hearing it and the words are moulded in such a way as to sound somewhat mannered. At the very end of the movement it’s the turn of the solo soprano to intone these words over a sustained choral chord. Again, the music is far too drawn out and, whatever effect Muti was striving to achieve, the result sounds affected. On two occasions soloists indulge in mannerisms that may grate with listeners on repeated hearings and I can only think what each singer does was at the conductor’s behest. The first of these - and it comes at a crucial point in the score (CD 1, track 6, 3:54) - is immediately before the basses thunder “Rex tremendae majestatis”. The soprano soloist has a very exposed octave drop on the word “securus”. Barbara Frittoli lands beautifully in the low G but then slurs up to the A flat which the basses are about to sing. There may be some justification for this of which I’m unaware but it’s certainly not in my vocal score nor have I ever heard this done in performance. There’s a similar occurrence in the Lacrimosa (CD 1, track 11, 5:07) where the bass soloist, having sung a row of D flats, slides up from the last of them to the E flat that he’s going to sing next. Again, this isn’t in the score and, whatever the reasons for it, the effect is ugly. I’m sorry if this seems like nitpicking but what might have passed unnoticed in a live performance may not stand the test of repeated listening.
Muti’s solo team is a pretty strong one. Barbara Frittoli sings well, though her vibrato is on the generous side at times. She’s passionate and intense, yet controlled, in the Libera me and elsewhere she caps the solo quartet very effectively. Olga Borodina is a true Verdian mezzo. She and Frittoli blend very well in Muti’s gentle and prayerful reading of the Agnus Dei. Earlier in the work she’s commanding and full-toned in the Liber scriptus and she brings lustre to the Recordare where, once again, she and Miss Frittoli combine most effectively.
I can’t recall hearing either of the men before. I am in two minds about Mario Zeffiri. He does some very fine things, almost invariably when singing quietly. In the Ingemisco his delivery of ‘Inter oves’ is light and airy and he’s even more pleasing at ‘Hostias et preces’ in the Offertorio (CD 2, track 1 from 4:23). This is taken at an expansive tempo by Muti but Zeffiri copes well, displaying good breath control and impressing particularly with his sweet tone. However, he’s less comfortable when the vocal line goes above the stave and he’s required to sing loudly. At such points he sounds strained, his vibrato becomes wide and there’s a tendency to spread some notes. This can be heard, for example, in the louder sections of the Recordare and here, and elsewhere, he occasionally elides the words - something I hate - so that we hear “in-a parte dextra”. I note that his brief biography in the booklet emphasises his prowess in the bel canto repertoire and I wonder if this role is a bit too heavy and taxing for him.
Ildar Abdrazakov is more consistently impressive. He provides a black, solid tonal foundation to the solo team - for example at the start of the Lux aeterna - and he’s a commanding presence in such passages as ‘Confutatis maledictis’ (CD 1, track 10). Yet in that very section, immediately afterwards at ‘Oro supplex’, he shows he can also offer some really sensitive, quiet singing. He matches Olga Borodina’s sensitivity in the Lacrymosa and, overall, makes a very favourable impression.
The choral singing is very good. There were a few occasions - in the Kyrie for instance - when I thought the choir should have achieved a quieter dynamic; Verdi’s instructions for pp and ppp are not always obeyed. However, the choral contribution is always incisive and, when required, these Chicagoans can really turn on the power. They also possess vocal agility, which is just as well in the Sanctus, for which Muti sets a challenging presto tempo. Yet the choir meets the challenge head-on and deliver lithe, precise singing.
I’ve already commented on the orchestral contribution, which is excellent throughout. We know that the Chicago Symphony can really turn on the power when it matters and they remind us of that on several occasions here, producing imperious playing in loud passages without any sense of strain. But just as impressive - in fact, more impressive - is their response to Muti’s more subtle demands. The performance of the Offertorio is a conspicuous all-round success, with all four soloists making distinguished contributions. But the orchestral playing is equally impressive and nowhere more so than in the last few bars, where the players bring the movement to a hushed close with playing of great finesse and refinement.
I’ve highlighted a few reservations but overall this is an impressive recording to which I’m sure I’ll return in the future. The very high standard of the performance bodes well for the partnership between Muti and the Chicago Symphony and it is to be hoped that he’ll make a full recovery from his illness and return to their rostrum, as planned, early in 2011. The recorded sound, as usual from this source, is very good, combining amplitude and clarity.
Despite a few reservations, overall this is an impressive recording of Verdi’s Requiem.
Masterwork Index: Verdi's Requiem