Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Requiem (1874) [85:53]
Carmen Giannattasio (soprano); Veronica Simeoni (mezzo); Alexander Timchenko (tenor); Carlo Colombara (bass)
Mikhailovsky Theatre Chorus; St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra/Yuri Temirkanov
rec. Great Philharmonic Hall, St Petersburg, 2 March 2009. DDD
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD184 [47:10 + 38:43]

That Yuri Temirkanov is amongst the finest living Russian conductors is not much in dispute. Like many of his ilk, and despite an extensive studio-recorded discography, it is generally accepted that his interpretations have been best served and commemorated in live recordings. Most of his recorded output has been of the standard Russian repertoire and forays beyond this have been rare, although his credentials as an established interpreter of Verdi have been enhanced by a special performance of the “Requiem” in the Vatican and his appointment as Music Director of the Teatro Regio di Parma.

In a world hardly short of recordings of this most stirring and human of liturgical works, a new Verdi Requiem really needs to be special to make any impact in the established discography. I suppose that I must be familiar with dozens of versions and as such am in danger of being hard to please. However, I was immediately impressed by Temirkanov’s expert pacing of the tentative, descending string figure which opens the work, and the tension generated by his careful phrasing in the choir’s increasingly assertive interpolations. My expectations were further raised by the firm vigour of the soloists’ crucial first few phrases, when each intones in turn a rousing and desperate “Kyrie”, announcing the composer’s intent to assail God with the urgency of their pleas. This sets the tone for the whole work; a good performance instantly crackles with electricity as the voices spiral heavenwards.

None of the soloists here is either especially famous or even necessarily possessed of a major voice but under the direction of a conductor who knows exactly what he is about, they flourish. Despite leaning towards a large-scale, slightly strident, operatic delivery, they succeed in evoking more of a sense of spiritual struggle than a dramatic confrontation. With three Italians soloists each producing the required italianità of tone, the desired impact is there without its descending into an operatic slugfest. About the tenor Alexander Timchenko (previously unknown to me), I remain undecided. As a Russian, he is obviously the odd-man-out and cannot help sounding typically Slavic. There is not much gleam in his grainy, plaintive tenor but he sounds as if he believes what he is singing, phrases musically, and his soft singing in the “Hostias” is really ethereal and moving. A tendency to sing “Kyri-hey” is regrettable, although no less an artist than Carlo Bergonzi is guilty of the same fault in his otherwise estimable performance under Leinsdorf. In addition to my reservations regarding the tenor, I note that there is a little too much vibrancy bordering on a wobble in Veronica Simeoni’s mezzo-soprano, and indeed in Carmen Gianattasio’s ample soprano, too, but they certainly carry dramatic conviction. Their voices blend compellingly in both the “Recordare” and the “Agnus Dei”, where Temirkanov adopts quite daringly slow speeds and allows them to indulge in the full operatic panoply of portamento, swoop and glide. Similarly, Colombara is a sincere artist despite his rather soft-grained bass failing to generate the massive authority of say, Ghiaurov or Siepi. He wobbles in the “Oro supplex” and is perhaps the least impressive of all four soloists here despite having a proven track record as the bass in the successful Naxos bargain set recorded as long ago as 1996. Nonetheless, together the vocal quartet makes an impressive team and share a real sense of commitment.

The same commitment shown by the singers is evident in the chorus; Temirkanov has them sing with real passion and abandonment and even copies Colin Davis’s trick of having them almost whisper “Quando judex est venturus”, which some find melodramatic. I rather like it. For the most part, I find his direction unerring in its judgement, except for one crucial point: the opening of the “Offertorio”. Too many conductors begin lugubriously and fail to build the momentum required to ensure that the music takes off and soars when we come to the “Quam olim Abrahae”. Once again, it falters and stalls here, thus constituting the only major blot on the set – but, in my judgement, a damaging one, as this movement is to me the emotional centre of this great work. However, Temirkanov makes amends in the last movement, where the soprano soloist and chorus produce a thrilling climax despite the odd clumsy moment from her.

This is the first of a new series of live recordings from Signum Records, prompted by the refurbishment of the Grand Philharmonic Hall which is the home venue of the St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra. The advantages of a live performance are much in evidence, despite the odd cough and grunt, and the occasional surprise such as a man’s voice muttering during the magical “Sed signifier sanctus Michael” – the conductor, perhaps? - the sound is excellent and was apparently made on new state-of-the-art recording equipment installed in the hall during the renovation.

Subsequent listenings to this set have taught me to appreciate its full-blooded virtues. It is up against tough competition, from recent sonic blockbusters such as Pappano’s new recording on EMI with the Accademia di Santa Cecilia. The soloists in both these recent versions suffer in comparison with those on classic recordings such as those conducted by Reiner, Bernstein, De Sabata or, above all, Karajan in his La Scala recording (currently available only on DVD) with the incomparable team of Price, Cossotto, Pavarotti and Ghiaurov, all in their young prime. An outright recommendation for this most -recorded of masterpieces is impossible, but Temirkanov’s seems to me to be an honest, passionate and very enjoyable, top-second-rank version which will appeal particularly to admirers of the conductor and his St Petersburg forces.

Ralph Moore