Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Sacred Verdi
Quattro pezzi sacri (Four Sacred Pieces) (1888-98) [38:45]
Ave Maria for soprano and strings (1880) [5:25]
Libera me for soprano, chorus and orchestra (1869) [12:32]
Donika Mataj (soprano), Maria Agresta (soprano),
Orchestra e Coro dell Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia/Sir Antonio Pappano
rec. 13-15 October 2012 (4 Sacred Pieces), 30 May 2013 (Libera Me), 30 May 2013 (Ave Maria), Auditorium Parco della Musica, Sala Santa Cecilia, Rome, Italy
WARNER CLASSICS 9845242 [56:55] 

In the year of Verdi’s bicentenary Sir Antonio Pappano has followed up his excellent 2009 Rome recording of the Messa da Requiem with this new Warner Classics release. London-born and of Italian parentage Sir Antonio has been Music Director of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia since 2005 and clearly has a special affinity with Verdi’s music. At the time of writing this review Pappano and these Santa Cecilia Rome forces are performing this very programme at the Royal Albert Hall as part of the BBC Proms 2013. 

Verdi’s Four Sacred Pieces were composed at separate times and not intended as a group. They were actually premièred as three Sacred Pieces in 1898 at Paris. As the composer was less confident of the quality of the Ave Maria it was dropped. However, it was premièred later that year in Vienna. The four panels of the Four Sacred Pieces can be summarised as follows:
i. Ave Maria on an ‘enigmatic scale’ harmonised for four-part mixed chorus a-cappella, in Latin.
ii. Stabat Mater for four-part mixed chorus and large orchestra, in Latin.
iii. Laudi alla Vergine Maria (text taken from Canto XXXIII of the Paradiso from Dante’s Commedìa) for four-part women’s chorus a-cappella, in Italian.
iv. Te Deum for double mixed chorus and large orchestra, in Latin.

I have collected several excellent accounts of the Four Sacred Pieces all worthy of interest:
i. The Berliner Philharmoniker and the Ernst Senff Chamber Choir/Carlo Maria Giulini, recorded live in 1990, Philharmonie, Berlin on Sony.
ii. Using period instruments from London in 1992 the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique and the Monteverdi Choir/Gardiner on Philips.
iii. The Berliner Philharmoniker and the Swedish Radio Choir and Stockholm Chamber Choir/Riccardo Muti recorded live in 1982 from the Philharmonie, Berlin on EMI.
iv. The 2010 account from the Orchestra and Chorus of Teatro Regio, Torino under Gianandrea Noseda on Chandos.
v. I find the most satisfying of all the accounts is that from Carlo Maria Giulini with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus on EMI Classics. Produced by Walter Legge, that performance was recorded in 1962 at the Kingsway Hall, London. My current copy is a wonderful sounding 2010 reissue on the EMI Masters series ‘Great Classical Recordings’. The coupling is Giulini’s justly famous 1963/64 Kingsway Hall account of the Messa da Requiem (EMI Classics 6 31821 2).
The Ave Maria for soprano and strings from 1880 is one of Verdi’s least familiar works. It is said to resemble in temperament Desdemona’s prayer Ave Maria fromOtello. To mark Rossini’s death in Paris in 1868 Verdi suggested that the finest composers in Italy should unite to write a work in honour of Rossini. A scheme was hatched that each composer would collaborate gratis and contribute part of a Messa per Rossini to be performed once only at Bologna on the first anniversary of Rossini’s death. Initial performance preparations were put in place, however, the collaborative project experienced various difficulties and never came to fruition. Verdi’s contribution was the closing section the Libera me cast for soprano solo, four-part mixed chorus and orchestra. Verdi later reused the Libera me for his great Messa da Requiem with a few alterations necessary to ensure a good fit. Here Pappano uses the original version of the Libera me.
Sir Antonio Pappano, his soloists and the Orchestra e Coro dell Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia are on spellbinding form with the present disc. In the Ave Maria the a cappella singing has a tender reverential quality that borders on the mystical. Dark foreboding suffuses the powerful Stabat Mater, the sorrowful hymn of the Mother of Christ standing grieving beside the cross. The climaxes are stunning. The female a cappella chorus in the Laudi alla Vergine Maria produce meltingly beautiful singing without losing that imperative reverential sensibility. Commencing with an enchanting unaccompanied chorus, the substantial Te Deum contains much captivating singing from soprano Donika Mataj. Once again the vocal and orchestral climaxes are remarkable and add both heartfelt impact and reverential awe. In the tender Ave Maria for soprano and strings, soloist Maria Agresta makes a telling contribution especially through her profound expressive reading, her radiance and her evident dedication. Agresta is suitably dramatic and highly moving in the Libera me and the overall effect is quite remarkable. Verdi’s magnificent music builds in weight from 7:03 and the thundering climax at 10:58-11:21 is both breathtaking and spiritually inspiring. Recorded in the Auditorium Parco della Musica, the sound quality, containing a wider dynamic range than I prefer, requires considerable volume control tweaking. Once the level has been adjusted the sound is clear and well balanced.
This is an intensely cohesive and deeply reverential performance high in sacred drama. It makes for thrilling listening. Pappano rivals the evergreen account from Giulini on EMI Classics.  

Michael Cookson

Intensely cohesive and deeply reverential. High in sacred drama. Thrilling listening.
Details of the Quattro pezzi sacri
i. Ave Maria (1888) [5:05];
ii. Stabat Mater (1896) [12:29];
iii. Laudi alla Vergine Maria (1893) [5:40];
iv. Te Deum (1898) [15:31] 

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