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CD Review

Giuseppe Verdi

  • Messa da Requiem
  • Quattro Pezzi Sacri *
Luba Orgonasova, soprano
* Donna Brown, soprano
Anne Sofie von Otter, mezzo-soprano
Luca Canonici, tenor
Alastair Miles, bass
Monteverdi Choir
Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique/John Eliot Gardiner
Philips 442142-2 2CDs
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Is there a point to tasteful Verdi?

I first heard Verdi's Requiem live as a teenager, at a Cleveland Orchestra concert led by George Szell. The confluence of age and performers produced probably the most auspicious circumstances for the work. Szell was the great postwar conductor of this masterpiece – in his hands, it crackled and roared. The wham-boks from the big bass drum of the "Dies irae" startled me into an adolescent yelp and temporarily lifted me four inches out of my seat. The emotional extremes and the large apocalyptic vision of this masterpiece played – almost unfairly – upon the hormone swings and grandiosity of a post-pubescent kid. Considerably older, I can't now imagine anyone wanting this work played at their own funeral, any more than I can imagine anyone – not even Aaron Spelling – wanting the Sistine Chapel ceiling in his living room. It's too public. It doesn't put a consoling arm around the mourners. It's a great musical fresco that tells of fires and divine wrath and the desolate winds in the aftermath of Armageddon. It talks of humankind, rather than the individual. Despite the inevitable ennui and jadedness that overtakes middle age, the Requiem still overwhelms me. I can point out a gazillion faults and "unfortunate" choices – the hokey brass writing, the hoariest bel canto turns of melody, the sensationalism – which turn out to matter not a jot. The work blazes with vision and dramatic power.

I own or have owned the following recordings: Bernstein, Serafin (1939), Toscanini (1951, on RCA), Reiner, Giulini, Solti (with Sutherland), as well as the Gardiner. Most have their virtues. The Bernstein disappoints big-time. It's too damn sloppy and the tempos too willful. It simply doesn't sing. My affection for the Toscanini version has cooled considerably, following my general disaffection with that conductor. With the exception of bass soloist Cesare Siepi, It seems colorless and routine. I admit I once thought it the best of the versions I'd heard.

As far as the solo quartet goes, Serafin, Reiner, and Giulini impress me the most. Serafin has the advantage of both Gigli and Pinza, Reiner's got the young Leontyne Price, Bjoerling, and Tozzi, and Giulini has Schwarzkopf, Ludwig, Gedda, and Ghiaurov, which I find the best overall, although they don't reach as high at certain moments and Schwarzkopf's voice takes a lot of getting used to.

The two best choirs are Toscanini's and Solti's, trained by Robert Shaw and Wilhelm Pitz, respectively. However, the choir contributes curiously little to Toscanini's performance. Generally speaking, I find Toscanini's performance eerily affectless, like a moonscape.

As to conductors, Reiner drags unforgivably in the slow sections. Serafin and Giulini certainly nail the style. Solti, however, burns down the barn. If ever a piece suited his personality, this one's it. The sensational, even cheap, aspects of the score hit you full and with the conviction of their absolute rightness. Serafin and Giulini are more refined, but who wants refined Verdi? For me, Solti remains first choice, despite Joan Sutherland and her usual shtick of speaking with her mouth full. Talvela has all the flexibility and warmth of granite, but Horne and the young Pavarotti sing with ardor. Horne is simply the best I've heard in this part, in spite of her strong Pennsylvanian accent, and Pavarotti brings me to tears with visions that he might have become one of the greatest lyric tenors. The voice rings, as you would expect, but he actually uses it artistically, producing a beautiful cantando line – something other than his now-standard bark.

So how does the Gardiner version compare? The choir is by far the best thing here. It matches the orchestra strength for strength, and you can hear individual parts and words besides. The soloists are good, but underpowered. I yield to nobody in my admiration for von Otter's singing, but her voice is simply too small for this work. With the exception of the bass, Alastair Miles, the soloists strike me as Lieder singers caught on an opera stage – to me, a variation of the student's nightmare about the test in a course he had forgotten about. Miles, however, seems oddly in the wrong country or the wrong work. He sounds as if he would be happier in The Dream of Gerontius – so English. It may have to do with his pronunciation. The orchestra is as crisp rhythmically as a brand-new box of peanut brittle. Brass attack especially excites. However, odd pitch problems plague the opening movement. I can't tell whether the violins are sharp or the rest of the orchestra is flat. Furthermore, the choir flattens in their a cappella passage. That they used the take amazes me.

Gardiner himself gives an efficient reading – unsatisfactory for that very reason. He doesn't seem to have any notion of Italian operatic style. He seldom makes use of rubato and in those rare instances seems to apologize for doing so – the rubati are that slight. In my opinion, if you're going to do the Requiem in the first place, you should be prepared to wallow in it. Nothing kills a performance of it as thoroughly as the disinfectant of Good Taste. To Gardiner's credit, his "Dies irae" (and its reappearance at the end) galvanizes you, due to superb, almost-percussive brass playing.

Sound is a bit cramped to me, which doesn't help.

The Four Sacred Pieces fare better, because the scale of vision is less. As you probably know, Verdi never intended the components ("Ave Maria," "Stabat mater," "Laudi alla Vergine Maria," and "Te Deum") as a set, but yielded to the urging of Ricordi, his publisher. The "Ave Maria" has its origins in a so-called "enigmatic" scale (a scale made up of unusual intervals) – c D Flat Major e f# g# a# b c – which a newspaper published as a challenge to composers. I have no idea how many composers took it up, since only Verdi's entry still gets performed. At any rate, Verdi used the scale as a kind of cantus firmus around which he made a lovely "Ave Maria" in four parts. Gardiner is capable here, but not particularly insightful. I prefer Giulini and others. The "Stabat mater" and "Laudi" have always struck me as weak water, and, while Gardiner doesn't change my mind, he does no worse than anybody else. The unaccompanied women's choir does very well indeed in the "Laudi," producing a sweet tone and mastering the work's demands of intonation.

The "Te Deum," however, recalls the Requiem's glories, with the mighty outbursts of "Sanctus" from the choir and brass and the long arches built from imitative entries spanning to climaxes. Furthermore, the basic material is more memorable. The work begins with a quiet a cappella passage for the men which requires strict adherence to pitch. After this, the entire company enters suddenly at full volume. Pitches had damn well better match, or the effect is ruined. Gardiner's men do wonderful work at low dynamic. For them, less loud means more, not less, intensity, and they maintain their harmonic equilibrium throughout. Gardiner's usual virtues of textural clarity and sharp rhythm propel this performance into the front ranks. I prefer Gardiner to the generally-accepted standard of Giulini, who, in comparison, seems coasting.

Why does Gardiner succeed here and not in the Requiem? First, the competition is less crowded and less stiff. Second, the "Te Deum" lacks the visionary scale of the Requiem. Gardiner seems to me most at home in the Baroque and in the "modest" Romantic. Third, the "Te Deum" has fewer things to master. For example, it lacks extended solos, and the range of styles is considerably more circumscribed. I just don't believe Gardiner has the Italian Romantic operatic style down yet. After all, how many has he conducted?

In all, a mixed bag.

Copyright © 1998, Steve Schwartz