Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Missa Solemnis [84:33]
Tina Kiberg (soprano)
Waltraud Meier (mezzo)
John Aler (tenor)
Robert Holl (bass)
rec. April-May 1993
Johannes BRAHMS (1813-1897)
A German Requiem [77:05]
Janet Williams (soprano)
Thomas Hampson (baritone)
rec. September 1992, January 1993
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Requiem [84:04]
Alessandra Marc (soprano)
Waltraud Meier (mezzo)
Placido Domingo (tenor)
Ferruccio Furlanetto (bass)
rec. September 1993
Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Daniel Barenboim
rec. Orchestra Hall, Chicago. DDD
WARNER ERATO 2564 66320-2 [5 CDs: 245:42]
Warner are making a big thing out of re-releasing much of Daniel Barenboim’s back catalogue as bargain collections - see the recent issue of his set of the Wagner operas as a good example. This one showcases great choral works from his team in Chicago, but it’s a mixed success at best. It’s beautifully played and recorded, captured in excellent sound and performed with intensity and sincerity, but in two of these works the conductor seems to go out of his way to draw attention to the significance and weight of the music so that it ends up being crushed beneath its own baggage. 
The chief problem is choice of tempo. Right from the opening notes of the Missa Solemnis it is clear that this is to be a reading of weight and moment, but the slow tempi that Barenboim chooses for most of the time seldom work in its favour. The opening Kyrie proceeds slowly and thoughtfully, but the damage really begins with the opening explosion of the Gloria which feels ponderous and never communicates as the Allegro vivace that the composer demands. This saps the work of its energy and argument so that it often feels like a trawl through the notes rather than a living, breathing performance. Very ironic, this, because, while it isn’t specified in the booklet, I’m pretty sure that most of the sessions were taped live. Barenboim’s approach works fairly well for some of the more meditative sections, most notably the Benedictus with its beautifully played solo violin and richly ringing solo voices, and it adds a little of the mystery to the Et incarnatus est section of the Credo; however, there isn’t enough contrast with the faster sections on either side of it so there’s an equal argument that it ends up sapping the movement of its potential power. This approach does the most damage in the great structural fugues. Et vitam venturi takes forever and sounds downright pretentious in places, though In gloria Dei patris isn’t quite as bad. However, the martial music in the Agnus Dei just sounds awful, dragged out and self-conscious, and the final bars are broadened out so much as to sound ridiculous. No, no, no: in spite of some excellent solo singing, this is a Missa Solemnis to set to one side because of the conductor’s inappropriate sense of pacing and architectural scale.
Unfortunately, similar criticisms can be levelled against the Brahms Requiem. The pacing here is so broad as to be almost catatonic in places. The opening pulse is ridiculously slow and, as with the Missa Solemnis, the big moments are robbed of their drama. Denn alles Fleisch, in particular, sounds heavy and portentous without being dramatic. Even the great turning point of the movement, Aber des Herrn Wort, loses its dramatic impact because it is just so slow, and the final movement feels interminable. Not all is lost: Thomas Hampson makes a compelling baritone soloist, while Janet Williams floats beautifully in her movement. Here, too, the big fugal highlights work much better. Dem Gerechten Seelen proceeds with rock-like clarity, while Herr du bist wurtig is stable and compelling, though I might have liked it with more pace behind it. However, this too isn’t a reading I’ll be coming back to in a hurry when there are so many other excellent versions out there.
Happily, things improve significantly with the Verdi Requiem. Barenboim’s dramatic gifts, so evident from his work in the opera house, come to the fore in this work and he paces it with much more agility, moving dynamically from section to section and never dragging. A quick glance at the quartet of soloists will let you see that you are in for a dramatic as well as a musical treat. Their interactions are outstanding, especially in the Quid sum miser and Lachrymosa sections. Domingo sings the Recordare as if it were lifted straight out of an opera, and Furlanetto plumbs extraordinary depths in the Confutatis. Meier sings with wide-eyed intensity. The quartet is offset by a sumptuous soprano from Alessandra Marc, cresting over proceedings with beauty and intelligence, though she runs out of steam slightly in the Libera me with a tiny but perceptible loss of pitch. The choral singing is biting and precise in the big moments, and the pacing of the two great fugues is (almost) razor-sharp throughout. The orchestral playing is excellent, with the famous Chicago brass coming into their own in the Tiba mirum and Sanctus. The recorded sound is excellent too, with each detail leaping out of the speakers and coming alive to the listener.
One out of three isn’t a fantastic hit-rate, however, and the set, while far from expensive, isn’t quite in the rock bottom price bracket that would make me happy to recommend it in spite of the sub-standard Brahms and Beethoven. Great as is the Verdi, which you may be able to find separately, this set as a whole is probably only for die-hard Barenboim followers. It’s too much of a mixed achievement to recommend wholeheartedly.
Simon Thompson 
Only for die-hard Barenboim followers. Too much of a mixed achievement.