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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Messa da Requiem (1874) [77:45]
Erika Grimaldi (soprano), Daniela Barcellona (mezzo), Francesco Meli (tenor), Michele Pertusi (bass)
London Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra/Gianandrea Noseda
rec. live, 18 & 20 September 2016, Barbican, London. DSD
Latin text & English translation included
LSO LIVE LSO0800 SACD [77:45]

This recording has been compiled from a pair of concerts given in September 2016 and I think I’m right in saying that these marked the start of Gianandrea Noseda’s term as the LSO’s Principal Guest Conductor. My Seen and Heard colleague, Margarida Mota-Bull reported on the first of the concerts (review). For these performances Noseda had the services of an all-Italian solo quartet as well as the LSO and the estimable London Symphony Chorus trained by Simon Halsey.

I thought long and hard about the choice of a comparative version of this work. So that apples were being compared with apples the comparator had to be a live recording rather than one made under studio conditions. I considered one or other of the live Giulini recordings (review ~ review) but since he is, in my view, without peer in this work that would have been an unbalanced choice. One important consideration was the question of sonics: really the new Noseda ought to be compared with a modern live recording, preferably on SACD. That led me to Riccardo Muti’s 2009 Chicago recording on CSO Resound. I expressed one or two reservations about that recording when I reviewed it but overall I regard it highly,

It’s interesting to observe that Muti’s performance lasts for 89:46, which is twelve minutes longer than Noseda’s. In fact, Noseda’s traversal is one of the quickest that I’ve encountered though Tulio Serafin’s 1939 live performance was over in just 72:47 (review). However, it’s more usual for a performance to last for over 80 minutes, as is the case with the likes of Abbado, Giulini, Pappano, and Toscanini. My colleague Dan Morgan used the Colin Davis recording on LSO Live as the comparison in his review of Noseda’s version. I haven’t heard the Davis but I understand it plays for 82:03. There’s no doubt that Noseda’s interpretation is fundamentally urgent and while this brings some benefits it also translates into a few quite controversial speeds.

I like a lot of what he does. The Sanctus, for instance, though as fleet as it should be, is clear and light on its feet. The Dies Irae is taken swiftly but the results are exciting. However, some of the other speeds make me less comfortable. In the opening movement, Requiem and Kyrie, the tempo should increase at ‘Te decet hymnus’ but surely not to the degree that Noseda presses on the accelerator pedal. In my vocal score that passage is marked at crotchet = 88, which is only 8 crotchets per minute faster than the opening of the work. Noseda speeds up considerably at this point and though in a way the results are exciting, the music feels over-driven. The ‘Tuba mirum’ is introduced by trumpet fanfares, some of which should sound from the orchestra and some from a distance; in this performance I don’t hear much difference – which I do hear with Muti. More worryingly, when the full brass take up the fanfare Noseda speeds up the tempo considerably. My score has no indication of a tempo change. Superficially the results are exciting but Muti, like most conductors in my experience, holds the speed as steady as a rock and thereby achieves the implacable grandeur that Verdi surely intended. I could give other examples but one more will have to suffice. Towards the end of the last movement there’s a choral fugue on ‘Libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna’. I’m afraid that Noseda’s hectic speed here is just too much of a good thing though the incisive choir delivers for him. Here again the effect is one of superficial excitement. Muti is steadier but no less exciting: speed isn’t everything. I’m sorry to say that overall I have the impression that Noseda, a fine conductor whose work I’ve admired on many occasions, just seems to skate over the surface of the work, and not just in the matter of tempi. In the ‘Lux aeterna’, for example, I just don’t feel the poetry is there. It doesn’t help that the soloists are too loud at times but more of a problem is the fact that Noseda doesn’t seem to give the music sufficient space. There’s one small but egregious touch in the ‘Pie Jesu’: I don’t at all care for the highly exaggerated way that all four soloists deliver the accents. I’ve never heard these pointed so emphatically and since all four soloists do exactly the same thing I can only assume that Noseda has asked them to do it that way. It’s ugly.

As I said, Noseda’s soloists are all Italian. They deliver mixed results. Michele Pertusi is a true Verdi bass and much of his singing is impressive. However, he earns a black mark from me at the start of ‘Confutatis maledictis’ where many of his high notes are so forcefully projected that the pitch becomes a little uncertain, Overall he makes a sterling contribution but I’m much more taken with Ildar Abdrazakov, who sings for Muti. Francesco Meli made a bad impression on me at his very first entry in the Kyrie. He tries to force the sound, it seems to me, and as a result the line is lost and the sound is not pleasing. Thereafter, his contributions are inconsistent. He sings ‘Ingemisco’ very well indeed, floating the line magically at ‘Inter oves’. The start of ‘Hostias’ is superb; once again the voice floats most affectingly. However, within a couple of bars he undoes all that good work by making a meal of the crescendo on ‘laudis offerimus’ and adding a downward swoop for good measure. Frankly, the effect is vulgar. On a number of occasions during the performance Meli attacks a note from below though he’s not the only one of the solo quartet to do that. Muti’s tenor, Mario Zeffiri isn’t absolutely ideal but he’s much to be preferred to Meli.

Daniela Barcellona does well in the mezzo role; indeed, I think she’s the best of the soloists. She’s fervent, for example, in ‘Liber scriptus’ and she matches her voice well with Erika Grimaldi in the ‘Recordare’. It’s Grimaldi with whom I have the biggest problem. For most of the time she simply sings too loudly. I fully accept that the solo role is often high-lying and it requires some effort to get up there. However, the soprano’s first note in the Offertorium – an E natural, which is not particularly high – is marked pp and should surely be floated at first. Grimaldi is simply too loud here and misses all the magic. Barbara Frittoli, who sings for Muti, gets it just right. Grimaldi offers us some of her best singing in the unaccompanied passage with the chorus in the last movement but here as well Frittoli is more subtle and to be preferred.

Muti’s quartet are individually preferable to Noseda’s and they also appear to sing as a team much more. That, I think, is of a piece with Muti’s overall approach to the work. Though I don’t care for one or two things that he does he is far more observant of the points of detail in the score and, crucially, his conducting is much more expressive.

Both conductors are very well served by their respective choirs and orchestras. The LSO can really turn on the power when required but, as ever, their playing has plenty of finesse when required. The London Symphony Chorus sings very well indeed for Noseda. However, the Chicago Symphony Chorus are equally fine and, crucially, the superb CSO Resound recording reports their singing with much greater impact than is achieved on the LSO Live disc. The CSO recording also shows the mighty Chicago Symphony to best advantage, often wonderfully nuanced but playing with staggering power at the big moments.

The recordings are very different. The CSO Resound recording has great presence and impact. Detail registers very satisfyingly and the climaxes really thrill the listener. By comparison the LSO Live sound, possibly influenced by the constraints of the Barbican Hall, is good but not as good. Furthermore, the LSO Live recording has a very wide dynamic range – even more so than on the Muti discs. Verdi uses a wide extreme of dynamics and with the LSO Live SACD I found it a challenge to find a volume level that allowed me to hear the soft passages, such as the opening, without being blasted out of my seat at moments such as the start of the ‘Dies Irae’.

Had I been in the Barbican for one of these concerts I would probably have enjoyed the performance. However, I don’t honestly believe that it’s an account of this great masterpiece that really stands up to the scrutiny of repeated listening. There is already a surfeit of excellent recordings of the Verdi Requiem on the market and I’m afraid this disappointing one is not competitive. I’ve listened to it several times for this reviewing assignment but I doubt I will do so again in the future.

John Quinn

Previous review: Dan Morgan



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