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REVIEW Plain text for smartphones & printers


Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Messa da Requiem [84:30]
Barbara Paver (soprano), Andrea Jaber (mezzo), Cameron Schutza (tenor). Hector Vasquez (bass-baritone)
Houston Masterworks Chorus and Orchestra/Tom Jaber
rec. live, 30 March 2014, Grace Presbyterian Church, Houston, Texas
5.0 DTS HD MA 24/96khz surround sound/2.0 DTS HD MA 24/96khz Stereo
Texts not included
HIGH DEFINITION TAPE TRANSFERS BD-A (no catalogue number) [84:30]

Houston Masterworks Chorus is described in the booklet as a community arts organisation dedicated to the presentation of great choral music and to the continuity of the choral society tradition. As a member of a choral society myself that’s a mission with which I identify strongly. The choir comprises volunteer singers and I presume that the orchestra is a body of freelance players rather than a permanent establishment.

In many ways I find the evaluation of this recording a difficult assignment. The choir is very good and sings with no little commitment. Similarly, the orchestra gives a very good account of Verdi’s score. The soloists do well, though I have one or two reservations. If I’d been in the audience for this concert I think I’d have gone home well satisfied – and even more so if I’d had the good fortune to be part of the chorus. The question is whether the performance and recording are sufficiently good to withstand the competition offered by many illustrious recordings from the past.

I think it’s appropriate to make a comment about the recorded sound at this stage. I found it difficult to find an optimum playback level. If I set the volume control at a high level then the big moments blazed as they should and the recording had impact. The downside with such a setting was that the quiet passages appeared too loud. However, if I set the volume to a lower level – one that did justice to the efforts of the performers to play and sing softly - then the recording seemed to lack sufficient presence. I also wonder about the balance of the soloists. I think that engineer John Proffitt has sought to achieve a realistic concert balance, which is fine. However, the soloists are not quite as forwardly placed as one might expect to hear them on a recording.

At whatever level I played the recording I think the very opening lacks a sense of mystery. The opening pages of the vocal score are peppered with instructions such as sotto voce or il pi˙ piano possibile or, again, sempre ppp. With the best will in the world I don’t think those instructions are sufficiently implemented here; we need more hush and tension. I also felt that Tom Jaber’s tempo isn’t sufficiently slow. I ought to say, however, that overall he conducts the score very well and with an evident feel for the balance between drama and sentiment.

There’s a strong start to the Dies Irae – the bass drum certainly makes its presence felt – though the choir’s basses don’t really have sufficient heft at ‘Tuba mirum’. Elsewhere there’s much good singing from the choir – they make a good job of the Sanctus, for example. I admire a lot of their singing in the ‘Libera me’ though the long unaccompanied section with the soprano soloist really isn’t quiet enough.

To my ears the pick of the soloists is mezzo Andrea Jaber. She’s good in the ‘Liber scriptus’ and also leads the trio very effectively in the ‘Lux Šterna’. I’m not quite so impressed by soprano Barbara Paver. She offers a lot of good singing; for example, along with her mezzo and tenor colleagues, she is sensitive in the ‘Quid sum miser’ and she combines effectively with Andrea Jaber in the touching ‘Recordare’. However, some of her tuning is not quite precise enough in the Agnus Dei and I find her too squally in some of the dramatic passages, notably in the ‘Libera me’.

The tenor, Cameron Schutza is quite effective though I’ve heard more winning accounts of the ‘Ingemisco’. It will be noted that Hector Vasquez is a bass-baritone rather than a bass. This is probably why he seems to lack sufficient amplitude in some places, such as ‘Mors stupebit’. When he’s singing full out there are times when he seems to be straining but, on the other hand, his quiet singing – for instance in parts of the ‘Confutatis’ - is admirable.

I deliberately haven’t included any comparisons with other recordings in this review, though I did make one or two during my listening. What we have here is a one-off live performance with no opportunities for re-takes – unless some editing of passages from rehearsal was done, as is often the way with live recordings. However, I think it has to be said that this performance is not in the same league as some of leading versions – I’m thinking, for instance, of the fairly recent Muti version (review) or any performance conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini. It’s relevant to mention that since this performance is competing in a crowded marketplace against many distinguished accounts of the work. However, this performance is presented in BD-A format; does that make a difference?

As I commented earlier, I had trouble finding an optimum playback level. That task accomplished, I have to say that the sound struck me as being good but not exceptional. I listened to the 2.0 Stereo layer; listeners who are set up for surround sound may get a more vivid picture of the performance. There is a modest amount of noise that confirms the presence of an audience but none of that detracts from the performance in any way. There is no applause to disturb the mood of the hushed ending.

Unless you regard BD-A sound as essential I think the verdict on this release is that it’s a worthy performance but it has to yield to the many notable versions which already grace the catalogue.

John Quinn



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