Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Messa da Requiem for soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, bass, chorus and orchestra (1868/69, 1873/75) [84:19]
Anja Harteros (soprano); Sonia Ganassi (mezzo); Rolando Villazón (tenor); René Pape (bass)
Orchestra and Chorus of the National Academy of Santa Cecilia, Rome/Antonio Pappano
rec. 8-13 January 2009, Auditorium Parco della Musica, Sala Santa Cecilia, Rome. DDD
EMI CLASSICS 6 98936 2 [46:29 + 37:50]
"A tribute of respectful affection, the expression of my sorrow." Verdi
The Verdi Messa da Requiem is probably the best known Requiem in the repertoire. Many great conductors have recorded it. I’m thinking of Toscanini at New York/1951, Victor De Sabata at Milan/1954 and probably the best known of all Carlo-Maria Giulini at London/1964-65. Some more recent versions have proved popular notably John Eliot Gardiner using period instruments in London/1992, Claudio Abbado at Berlin/2001 and also Nikolaus Harnoncourt at Vienna/2004. Now Antonio Pappano, currently music director of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden has recorded the score for EMI Classics. British-born of Italian parentage, maestro Pappano clearly has an affinity with the score and has produced a performance that can rival the very best in the catalogues.
The Messa da Requiem has a fascinating history. The score was conceived by Verdi in 1868 as a tribute to Rossini following his death in Paris. Verdi suggested that composers of Italy should unite in honour of Rossini. The plan was developed that each composer would collaborate gratis contributing part of a Requiem to be performed once only at Bologna on the first anniversary of Rossini’s death. Verdi contributed the closing section: the Libera me, Domine. Preparations were put in place however, the collaborative project experienced difficulties and never came to fruition.
Some five years later Verdi gained an unexpected stimulus to compose a Requiem Mass. As a young man Verdi had been captivated by Alessandro Manzoni’s famous novel, I promessi sposi (The Betrothed). Verdi wrote of Manzoni in 1868, “I would have knelt before him if it was permissible to worship men.” At Milan in May 1873 the 88 years old Manzoni on his way to early morning mass tripped and fell on the steps of the San Fedele church only to die a few months later. Verdi inconsolable said he was too moved to attend the funeral. A week later he travelled to Milan to visit the grave alone and pay his personal homage. Within a few weeks he quickly announced to the mayor of Milan his intention to compose a Messa da Requiem in remembrance of Manzoni. At this time the 60 year old Verdi was at the height of his creative powers having recently had his opera Aďda premiered in Cairo with only Otello and Falstaff yet to be composed. Expectations were high. The Milanese authorities gave their approval to the project agreeing to pay for the one-off performance costs. Their only stipulation being that the Messa da Requiem had to be premiered in Milan and on the anniversary of Manzoni’s death. Verdi already had the important closing section written for the Rossini Requiem although it seems that he virtually rewrote it. By April 1874 the Requiem was completed and the score despatched to publisher Ricordi. For its favourable acoustics and proportions adequate for his 120 voice choir and 100 strong orchestral Verdi chose the church of San Marco as the location for the Milan performance. On 22 May 1874, the anniversary of Manzoni’s death, the Messa da Requiem was successfully given under Verdi’s baton. The San Marco church could not hold a large congregation and many people failed to gain entry. Verdi conducted another performance three days later at La Scala opera house with an additional two performances conducted by Franco Faccio.
The Messa da Requiem was subsequently acclaimed both in Italy and widely around Europe. In Italy the Messa da Requiem became so popular that it was often played in various guises ranging from arrangements for military bands or transcriptions for four pianos. Critical opinion was generally in sympathy with the Messa da Requiem. Many observers shared Brahms’ opinion that, “Only a genius could have written such a work.” Some commentators were far less enamoured of the score feeling that Verdi’s dramatic music, that felt operatic at times, was not in keeping with a text essentially based on the liturgical Roman Catholic Latin Mass for the Dead. Verdi was certainly not a practising Roman Catholic and in truth was possibly an agnostic if not a total unbeliever. Biographer Eric Blom stated that Verdi, “though not a reformer, is a liberal minded catholic.” Strengthening accusations of insincerity the renowned conductor Hans von Bülow described the score as, “An opera in ecclesiastical garb.” Francis Toye, another Verdi biographer, expressed the view that the work, “… is not really an ecclesiastical composition at all but a utilisation by a master of drama of the words of the liturgy to express the most profound emotions of the composer.” Wagner, never usually lost for words, is reported to have said, simply, “It is better to say nothing …

The influence of the Cecilian movement in Italy would have undoubtedly been a factor in whipping up often extreme reactions to Verdi’s Messa da Requiem. The
Church reform movement wanted to rid the Roman Catholic Church of a growing trend towards a more theatrical style of music and the influence of secularism by returning to more the traditional ideals of Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony.
Maestro Pappano is musical director of Santa Cecilia in addition to his Covent Garden position. In an exceptional performance Pappano’s Roman chorus and orchestra are conducted with power, assurance and precision. I was struck by its sheer intensity. Of the many highlights I especially enjoyed the Dies Irae: spine-tingling and terrifying depiction of judgement day.
Pappano has assembled a splendidly contrasted quartet of soloists who rise wonderfully to the challenges of the occasion. Winner of the Cardiff Singer of the World Competition in 1999, German-born Anja Harteros is a radiant soprano of the highest quality. Her silky tone is of the utmost purity and her control is impeccable. Sonia Ganassi the velvety and light-toned Italian mezzo is expressive with the rare ability truly to move the listener. Under pressure her vibrato is noticeable but never intrusive. International star tenor Rolando Villazón is in fine voice and is most convincing in conveying a devotional quality to his interpretation. I note that Villazón is recuperating after surgery on his vocal chords shortly after this recording was made and is hoping to return next year. For me the stand-out performance is from René Pape who just gets better and better. The rich tones of the German bass radiate dark character with a convincing sense of authority.

There are several alternative recordings that I prize from my own collection:

a) The magnificent and now ever-green Giulini and the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus with soloists Schwarzkopf, Ludwig, Gedda and Ghiaurov recorded at the Kingsway Hall, London in 1963/64 on EMI Classics CMS5675602.

b) John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, the Monteverdi Choir with soloists Orgonasova, Von Otter, Canonici and Miles. Using period instruments the score was recorded at the All Hallows Church, London in 1992 on Philips 442 142-2.
c) Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, the Swedish Radio Chorus and the Ericson Chamber Choir with soloists Gheorghiu, Barcellona, Alagna and Konstantinov recorded at the Philharmonie, Berlin in 2001 on EMI Classics 5571682.
d) Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducting the Arnold Schoenberg Choir and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra with soloists Mei, Fink, Schade and d’Arcangelo. Recorded live at the Grosser Saal, Musikverein, Vienna in 2004. The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra use modern instruments paying attention to historical performance practice on RCA Red Seal SACD 82876 61244 2.
e) Sometimes idiosyncratic yet fascinating nevertheless is the inspiring version from the enigmatic Sergiu Celibidache and the Munich Philharmonic and Chorus. The performance comes from live archive material of a radio broadcast in 1993 from the Gasteig Philharmonie at Munich. The soloists are Filipova, Runkel, Dvorsky and Rydl and the recording is on EMI Classics 5 57848 2.

Antonio Pappano made this recording for EMI earlier this year at the relatively newly constructed Auditorium Parco della Musica at Sala Santa Cecilia in Rome. The sound quality is clear with a wide dynamic range. On account of the ridiculously quiet start I could not hear the music for around forty-five seconds into the disc. Playing the disc whilst driving in the car it was over two minutes before the music became reasonably audible. Few people would have failed to have reached for the volume control. I enjoyed the excellent essay in the booklet from Stephen Jay-Taylor.
With this EMI set Pappano proves himself a Verdi conductor of great stature. He has produced a scorching performance that can rival the very best in the catalogue.
Michael Cookson
Antonio Pappano proves himself a Verdi conductor of great stature and has produced a scorching performance of the Requiem that can rival the very best ... see Full Review