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CD: AmazonUK AmazonUS MDT

Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Requiem [80:48]
Quattro Pezzi Sacri [40:53]
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (soprano: Requiem); Janet Baker (mezzo: Pezzi); Christa Ludwig (mezzo: Requiem); Nicolai Gedda (tenor: Requiem); Nicolai Ghiaurov (bass: Requiem); Philharmonia Chorus & Orchestra/Carlo Maria Giulini
rec. 16-21, 23-27 September 1963, 7 April 1964 (Requiem); 10-13 December 1962 (Pezzi), Kingsway Hall, London. ADD
EMI CLASSICS 6318212 [67:00 + 61:41]

Experience Classicsonline

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 its inevitability.

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 abrupt edits.

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.

Mark Sealey





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