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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Messa da Requiem (1874) [84:01]
Jessye Norman (soprano); Agnes Baltsa (mezzo-soprano); Jos Carreras (tenor); Yevgeny Nesterenko (bass)
Chor und Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Riccardo Muti
rec. live 8 & 9 October 1981, Herkulessaal der Residenz, Munich
Booklet notes in English & German; Latin text with English & German translation
BR KLASSIK 900199 [46:25 + 37:36]

Issued on BR Klassik as an eightieth birthday tribute to Riccardo Muti, this live performance was not previously available on CD, so I did not include it in my survey. Baltsa and Carreras can be heard together in Karajan’s fine 1984 recording and of course Baltsa and Nesterenko made a studio recording of the Requiem under Muti three years previously – he went on to make three more commercial recordings - but this live performance has the look of a dream cast and is the best he conducted; certainly contemporary critical response was ecstatic.

Jessye Norman began her career singing the soprano role but a year later for Abbado at the Edinburgh Festival she moved to the mezzo part. Carreras was here still in very good voice and both Baltsa and Nesterenko were acknowledged as supreme exponents of their parts. Muti’s way with the Requiem was generally hard and driven and for some he takes the Dies Irae too fast but for me time and again he gives the music ample time to breathe, as the overall timing indicates. The opening is as grand and stately as one could wish and both Norman and Carreras immediately surprise by the heft of their contribution – whereas Nesterenko at first sounds a little nasal; fortunately, he quickly sings himself into form. The chorus is superlative and despite the slightly muddy, over-resonant acoustic, the impact of the ensembles is overwhelming, especially the Tuba mirum with the extra trumpets positioned in the gallery of the Herkulessaal. Nesterenko’s Mors stupebit is suitably chilling and hieratic and Baltsa’s trenchant lower register and round, ringing top notes are a joy; she also injects great feeling into her narrative passages. The contrast between her voice and Norman’s is especially pleasing and both pay the closest attention to their inflection of text so that their Recordare is a high point - but all four artists have especially individual timbres without that compromising the homogeneity of their concerted passages and Norman’s powerful velvety low notes are complemented by the delicacy of her high-flying lines. Just occasionally she seems to be “fudging” unsupported top notes but she makes a virtue of floating them pianissimo and artistically that can be very satisfying; her entry on “Sed” in the Offertorio is a dream. Carreras deploys his uniquely plangent tenor to moving effect in the Ingemisco such that we can forgive just a little pulse in his vibrato and his use of falsetto in the Hostias is sweet and steady. Nesterenko makes an appropriate showpiece of his Confutatis and the slow, inexorable tread of the ensuing Lacrimosa gives the lie to the accusation that Muti is slapdash or perfunctory.

I have always maintained that for me the Offertorio invariably constitutes my ultimate test for the quality of any recording of the Verdi Requiem – and the swing with which Muti infuses "Quam olim Abrahae" is just right; so many conductors let it drag. Nesterenko even executes a passable trill and the quartet assumes the stature of an operatic set-piece highlight – as it should in this most theatrical of liturgical settings. Many a soprano comes to grief in the concluding Libera me but Norman grabs the part by the throat and shakes the life out of it, starting with a startlingly vibrant, almost aggressive plea for redemption; she sounds genuinely desperate and her vehemence is matched by the inspired choir. By contrast, her spun line on the concluding B-flat on “Requiem” seven and a half minutes in and final top C at 11:42 are like angelic shafts of light.

Nowhere on the discs or in the packaging does is it indicated whether this is just stereo or digital and it is difficult to tell, as there is always a certain amount of extraneous, ambient background noise in a live recording; I am inclined to think that it is not digital as it is just a bit fuzzy and indistinct, but I am open to correction. Having said that, it perfectly acceptable for a live recording forty years old. Coughing is minimal. You can safely discard/recycle the superfluous cardboard sleeving (why?).

While there are plenty of classic studio recordings of the Verdi Requiem, I cannot think of a more compelling live recording than this and, in any case, it stands comparison with the very best, studio or live.

Ralph Moore

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