The Well-Tempered Music Guy

Simple thoughts by a simple listener on classical music

Monday, April 10, 2006

A Professional Verdi Requiem

In the Fall, I heard the London Symphony Orchestra under Colin Davis perform the Verdi Requiem at Avery Fischer Hall as part of the Great Performers series. It was an absolutely thrilling, electric performance -- the highlights were Sir Colin's consistently convincing pacing and the sharp, incisive, pitch perfect singing of the London Symphony Chorus, one of my very favorites in the world. I like the sound of a chorus singing as one powerful voice, with little or no vibrato. I think this works best, not just in baroque and classical pieces, but in Romantic ones like the Verdi. The tenor and especially the soprano were also terrific (the names fail me now, I'll look it up later). In short, it was a heart-stopping performance of one of the great masterpieces of Western music, on the short list of the most incredible concert experiences in my memory.

Fast forward to last Tuesday (yes, this post is a little overdue). I had high hopes, because although Maazel is an obsessive tinkerer, as I've talked about here, the Verdi Requiem is a vast, dramatic, Romantic canvas that is amenable to such a flexible approach (see Riccardo Muti's excellent recordings, especially the one featuring Pavarotti, Zajick and Studer). But I was rather disappointed with the result. First, the performance as a whole was just TOO SLOW. It was as if Maazel was taking a reverential, spiritual approach, but for some reason it never even worked on that level. It just felt matter-of-fact, even (and in a way, especially) in the big, loud Dies Irae episode, which one would think MUST be exciting. Everything was played on the legato side in the entire piece, there was no punctuation or rhythmic vitality. When you thought he finally had a solid, steady rhythm going, he would suddenly slow down the performance at the oddest times. Second, the New York Choral Artists is a fine professional chorus, but I longed for the London Symphony. They sang with a lot of vibrato and a lot of those gorgeous chords, especially in loud parts, lost focus as a result. A bunch of excellent solo singers singing together don't make an excellent chorus.

The soloists were all very good. The mezzo, Luciana D'Intino was especially good, the only advantage this performance had over the London Symphony's (where the mezzo was a bit lacking). Franco Farina is a solid, serviceable Verdi tenor, and can certainly be very very loud, but soft and tender as well, even if his tone isn't always the prettiest in either mode (it has an gritty edge to it). We were told at the outset that the soprano, Fiorenza Cedolins, had a cold, and the Philharmonic's director requested out "indulgence." These announcements seem to be getting more and more common, I think it's a bit silly. I was prepared to provide "understanding," but "indulgence"? Hmmm... At any rate, she didn't need any indulgence, she sounded quite good. The bass, Orlin Anastassov, had a nice, rich voice.

And you know what? I'd go hear it again. This piece is incredible, and it was a professional performance, and I enjoyed myself. I hate being a nit-picky, smug reviewer when all these people with immense talent that I don't have present such a titanic work on a high level. But what can I do? Recordings and especially that incredible London Symphony performance set such a high standard.

As for recordings. I think there is no perfect all-around recording of the Verdi Requiem, oddly enough. At least I haven't found one, and I've done quite a bit of looking. As I mentioned, I like Muti's recording, but the sound is a bit recessed and the chorus is on the wobbly side. Muti's other recording has more immediate sound but less spectacular soloists. Solti has the best quartet of soloists (Pavarotti in his prime, Marilyn Horne (WOW!), Talvela, and Sutherland), but as is often the case with Solti recordings, the conducting is a bit uneven and the orchestral sound rather brutal. Toscanini's recording is awesome in its way, with a terrific quartet and some exciting, even terrifying, passages, especially the Tuba Mirum, where you can hear Toscanini shouting while the trumpets blare. It makes your hair stand on end. But again, although the Robert Shaw Chorale was fine for what it was, it just doesn't have the focus that I like. Also, some passages in the Toscanini recording are surpisingly slow, such as the Dies Irae (although he sneakingly speeds it up as it goes) and, more damagingly, the Sanctus. Gardiner, of course, has excellent choral singing, but his soloists are all rather underpowered and uninspiring and, as is the case with many of his recordings on Phillips, the sound is way way too distant. This is a topic for a whole other discussion, but I think this is such a travesty, because the foremost advantage of period performances are transparency and immediacy, and Phillips really undermined this with their muffled recordings of Gardiner's terrific performances.

In the end, I think my favorite performance (although I couldn't do without the Solti -- just for Pavarotti's Ingemisco -- or Toscanini), although it too is not perfect, is Giulini's BBC broadcast recording featuring the relatively obscure quartet of Richard Lewis, David Ward, Amy Shuard, and Anna Reynolds (the soloists listed on Tower are for the accompanying Schubert Mass). Shuard, the soprano, slides around a bit but has a very nice tone. Ward, the bass, is truly excellent. The mezzo Reynolds is also very good, but Lewis is the weak spot. He sounds kind of strained (but that's why we need to keep Pavarotti handy). But the choral singing is truly GORGEOUS, the best I've heard on any recording, and the recorded sound, amazingly enough, is also terrific -- immediate, clear, and warm, FAR better than Giulini's studio recording, strangely. Unlike Maazel's attempt, Giulini's performance actually attains spiritual heights, it's great, live occasion. Go get it if you haven't heard it.


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