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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901) Messa da Requiem (1874) [84:01]
Jessye Norman (soprano), Agnes Baltsa (mezzo-soprano),
José Carreras (tenor), Yevgeny Nesterenko (bass)
Chor und Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Riccardo Muti
rec. live, 8 & 9 October 1981, Herkulessaal, Munich
Latin texts with English translations included BR KLASSIK 900199 [46:25 + 37:36]
‘A tribute of respectful affection, the expression of my sorrow.’ - Verdi about his Messa da Requiem.
BR Klassik has released this live recording of Verdi’s Messa da Requiem to mark the forty years since its performance in October 1981 in the Herkulessaal, Munich. Riccardo Muti’s set of performances conducting the Chor und Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks was greatly acclaimed by audiences and critics alike and were the maestro’s first appearances in the Bavarian city. Amongst the commentaries for this Muti release, the BR Klassik website states, ‘Finally – four decades later – BR Klassik can now present this absolute pinnacle in the performance history of Verdi’s Messa da Requiem on CD.’ One does wonder why such an outstanding recording wasn’t released much earlier.
One of the greatest sacred works ever written, Verdi’s Messa da Requiem rightly continues to be an enduringly popular choice in concert performance and the recording studio. Personally, I’ve seen the Messa da Requiem live in concert a number of times. At the Dresdner Musikfestspiele 2013, I was bowled over when reporting on an inspiring performance of the Verdi Requiem in the Kreuzkirche, Dresden, in which Gianandrea Noseda conducted a first-class quartet of soloists in Kristin Lewis, Sonia Ganassi, Francesco Meli and Ildar Abdrazakov with the Orchestra e Coro del Teatro Regio di Torino.
Verdi’s Requiem does not have a straight-forward history. In 1873 Alessandro Manzoni the renowned novelist, poet and philosopher died. His historical novel I promessi sposi (The Betrothed), a work that had a distinct patriotic appeal, being symbolic of the early surge in Italian nationalism, was first published in 1827 and revised in 1842. Verdi, sixty years old and at the height of his creative powers having had his opera Aïda premièred in Cairo in 1871, revered Manzoni and was stimulated to compose a Messa da Requiem in his honour. He looked to the unperformed Messa per Rossini, his collaborative project with twelve other composers to mark Rossini’s death in 1868, from which he reused in a revised version his own contribution, the Libera me. On the first anniversary of Manzoni’s death in 1874 the Requiem was successfully given under Verdi’s baton in the San Marco church, Milan.
As Verdi’s Requiem became better known, many observers shared Brahms’ opinion that ‘Only a genius could have written such a work.’ Some commentators were less enamoured, feeling that Verdi’s dramatic music was too operatic and not in keeping with the text, essentially based on the Roman Catholic Latin Mass for the Dead. Strengthening accusations of insincerity, the renowned conductor Hans von Bülow described the score as ‘An opera in ecclesiastical garb’. This is a huge work requiring large orchestral forces, a mixed choir and four soloists and one should never underestimate the hard-hitting effect it can have on audiences.
For this performance, Muti assembled an impressive roster of soloists. At the time, the late American soprano Jessye Norman was completing the first phase of her career that had been predominantly based in Europe and had mainly involved oratorios and solo recitals. In 1981, Norman was in her mid-thirties and still a year off making her first USA opera appearance. With this Munich performance, Norman was revisiting the city where in 1968 she won the prestigious ARD International Music Competition of the Bayerischer Rundfunk, held annually in Munich. She excels in the Requiem, her soprano sounding fresh and clean with an unaffected purity and an uncommonly focused projection. Concluding the work is the lengthy Libera me, rather like a complete opera scena. Norman convincingly intones the prayer for absolution followed by the chorus imploring the merciful Lord for his forgiveness on that awful day of judgement with the wrath to come. In particular, the section Requiem aeternam dona eis with chorus is beautifully achieved by Norman, gloriously soaring seraphically to her high notes without strain and ending in a hushed whisper.
A late replacement in the part, Spanish tenor José Carreras was also then in his mid-thirties and in his prime. Featuring in many Verdi opera performances and recordings, Carreras is noted for his passionate expression and the beauty of his voice. In the Ingemisco the tenor implores God that on the last day of judgment, He will forgive his sins and grant him mercy. With his voice in such splendid condition Carreras might well be singing an opera aria, yet he delivers the sacred text with dedication, retaining reverential conviction.
Renowned Greek mezzo-soprano Agnes Baltsa was no stranger to Munich, having undertaken part of her training in the city. In 1980 she was honoured with the title of Kammersängerin of the Wiener Staatsoper. One of Herbert von Karajan’s favourite performers, Baltsa appears as soloist on a number of his recordings. Under Muti’s baton, in the Liber scriptus section of the Sequentia, the resolute Baltsa gives her all, standing out in a performance of real passion.
The bass role is taken by the Moscow-born Yevgeny Nesterenko. A member of the Kirov, in 1971 Nesterenko joined the Bolshoi becoming renowned as a leading bass in the company. A greatly experienced singer, his unaffected voice isn’t as weighty and voluminous as many basses, yet it can produce colour and displays a talent for expression. In 1980 one Moscow reviewer, reporting from a performance of Eugene Onegin with Nesterenko as Prince Gremin, stated he was essentially a lyric baritone. He is best heard in the Confutatis maledictis where his greyish tone attains a fulfilling level of menace that isn’t overplayed. Prepared by British chorus master Gordon Kember, who was new in the role, the glorious-sounding and well unified Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks provides an invaluable contribution.
Muti’s conducting communicates a palpable sense of occasion, producing a performance that achieves at turns extreme beauty, bitter sorrow, fierce intensity and sacred awe. Striking in magnificent opening of the Dies irae, the large forces come together for a compelling and full-blooded depiction of Judgement Day.
Recording in the renowned acoustic of the Herkulessaal the sound engineers provide splendid clarity and balance, astutely capturing an atmosphere that feels ideally suited to the sacred text. (By the way, additional trumpets were positioned at the rear of the hall gallery). There is an essay ‘Intensely Gripping’ by Wolf-Dieter Peter and a summarised version of a conversation between recording producer Wilhelm Meister and recording engineer Martin Wöhr. Latin texts with English translations are included in the booklet.
Owing to the popularity of the Verdi Requiem there are many recordings in the catalogue, and I have accumulated a number of these. First acquired as a vinyl LP box set on HMV/EMI a prized recording is the now ‘classic’ account from 1963/64 conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus. Giulini has an outstanding roster of soloists namely Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (soprano), Christa Ludwig (mezzo-soprano), Nicolai Gedda (tenor) and Nicolai Ghiaurov (bass). Powerful, formidably dramatic, and full of sacred awe, the work was recorded in the Kingsway Hall, London. I now have the Giulini recording on a digitally remastered CD on Warner Classics c/w Quattro Pezzi Sacri. Of the more recent recordings, although it doesn’t surpass Guilini and this Muti, I admire Christian Thielemann’s account of theRequiem recorded live in the Semperoper Dresden for radio transmission by MDR Kultur. The concert was given ‘In memory of the destruction of Dresden on 13th February 1945’ and performed on the anniversary date in 2014. Thielemann conducts the Staatsopernchor und Staatskapelle Dresden with a solid roster of soloists, namely Krassimira Stoyanova (soprano), Charles Castronovo (tenor), Marina Prudenskaya (mezzo-soprano), and Georg Zeppenfeld (bass) on the Profil label.
Overall, this 1981 Muti performance of Verdi’s magnificent Messa da Requiem has convincing impact. Standing out is the spine-chilling dread of the Dies Irae that contrasts markedly with the inspiring and consoling elements of the score. It is simply top drawer, as is Giulini’s classic recording with the Philharmonia, making it tough to separate the two.
Previous review: Ralph Moore Note
A contributor to the MusicWeb message board informed us that this recording ‘first appeared on CD just over 20-years ago on a magnificent Japanese collection of 100 discs (or thereabouts) called Live Classic Best.’