02 September 2013

CD REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi – REQUIEM (A. Harteros, E. Garanča, J. Kaufmann, R. Pape; DECCA B0018946-02)

Giuseppe Verdi: MESSA DA REQUIEM (DECCA B0018946-02)

GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901): Messa da Requiem—A. Harteros (soprano), E. Garanča (mezzo-soprano), J. Kaufmann (tenor), R. Pape (bass); Coro ed Orchestra del Teatro all Scala; Daniel Barenboim [Recorded ‘live’ during concert performances at Teatro alla Scala, Milan, on 27 and 28 August 2012; DECCA B0018946-02; 2CD, 85:59; Available from Amazon and all major music retailers]

Since the première of the work in Milan’s Chiesa di San Marco in 1874 and its first performance on the stage of the Teatro alla Scala three days later, on 25 May 1874, the Messa da Requiem has sometimes been cited—only slightly ironically—as Verdi’s finest opera.  Originating with the ‘Libera me’ that Verdi composed as his contribution to a proposed Requiem for Rossini, a project launched by Verdi soon after Rossini’s death in 1868 that incorporated music by several of Italy’s most celebrated composers of the time (including Carlo Coccia, Federico Ricci, and Lauro Rossi), the Messa da Requiem developed into Verdi’s most ambitious effort in the realm of liturgical music.  It was also in 1868 that Verdi met Alessandro Manzoni, arguably Italy’s greatest 19th-Century novelist and the author of I Promessi Sposi, a seminal work in modern Italian literature and the inspiration for an opera by Amilcare Ponchielli.  Not unlike Verdi’s music, Manzoni’s writing was important to the Risorgimento, the political movement that led to Italian unification in 1870.  Verdi’s distrust of the traditional teachings of the Church is prolifically documented and expressed in many of his operas, perhaps most memorably in the malicious machinations of the Grand Inquisitor in Don Carlos.  Inspired by his respect for Manzoni and the ideals to which the writer’s work aspired, Verdi tapped a vein of warm-blooded spiritualism in the Messa da Requiem; or else emulated genuine feeling with uncommon alacrity.  Despite the pervasive emotionality encountered in the Messa da Requiem, the score pulses with drama: it is no coincidence that the quartet of soloists who sang in the first performance of the Messa da Requiem were also involved—or, in the case of the tenor soloist, intended to be involved—in the première of Aida.  The Messa da Requiem is unashamedly operatic and all the better for it.  In composing the Requiem, Verdi followed the advice given to virtually every struggling writer by responding to the liturgy in a very individual manner that engaged his imagination at an exceptionally high level of invention: in short, in crafting his Requiem Verdi used the tools with which he was best acquainted.  With the Messa da Requiem, Verdi not only offered an aptly monumental homage to Manzoni and the founding spirit of modern Italy but also a vivid exploration of the intricacies of humanity and one of the enduring masterworks of the choral repertory.

The present recording, derived from two performances of the Requiem at La Scala in August 2012, is not Daniel Barenboim’s first recorded performance of the work.  His 1993 recording of the Requiem with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the solo quartet of Alessandra Marc, Waltraud Meier, Plácido Domingo, and Ferruccio Furlanetto, also recorded in performance, won praise for its combination of contemplativeness with open-throated singing by fulsome-voiced soloists who shrank from none of the score’s overtly operatic passages.  In the two decades since the Chicago performances, Maestro Barenboim’s response to Verdi’s score seems to have deepened, his conducting of the Milan performances recorded by DECCA producing an even more rapt atmosphere of sincerity and contemplation.  The personnel of the La Scala Chorus and Orchestra enjoy a direct lineage with the Requiem extending back to the second performance of the work, and this legacy is evident in singing and playing of evident naturalness.  The choristers’ piano and pianissimo singing is often sublime, and the massive sunbursts of sound at climaxes are predictably arresting.  Fugal passages, especially those for double chorus in the ebullient ‘Sanctus,’ offer no challenges that the choristers are not eminently capable of meeting with technical aplomb, but the singers are happiest in the go-for-broke moments of the ‘Dies irae’ and the melodically idyllic ‘Agnus Dei.’  In the hands of the La Scala Orchestra, instrumental textures are rich but clear, the playing poised but passionate.  The secure intonation of the trumpets in the ‘Tuba mirum’ is fantastic, and the chorus and orchestra storm the heavens in this movement not just with volume but also with palpable emotion.  Under Maestro Barenboim’s leadership, orchestral sonorities are leaner than might be expected, lending the music an air of modernity that highlights the freshness of Verdi’s invention.  Maestro Barenboim lacks the natural command of rubato brought to the Requiem by conductors of previous generations, most notably Toscanini, de Sabata, and Serafin, but his conducting of this performance displays greater rhythmic vitality and precision than have been heard in much of his work.  There are occasional concerns for the maintenance of ensemble, particularly in the tricky contrapuntal settings of ‘Quam olim Abrahae’ in the ‘Offertorio,’ but the La Scala musicians are too experienced in this music to lose their way.  Maestro Barenboim has the dubious distinction of having begun his career as a Wunderkind: this performance confirms that, after nearly five decades on the podia of many of the world’s finest orchestras, the Wunder remains intact, and the engineers and production team who prepared this recording captivatingly captured the magic of the occasion.

The superb quartet of soloists is anchored by German bass René Pape.  Thus far, Mr. Pape’s contributions to this year’s celebrations of the dual operatic bicentennials have been primarily focused on the music of Wagner, with the releases of his performances of Wotan in Das Rheingold and Die Walküre in the Mariinsky Ring conducted by Valery Gergiev and his critically-acclaimed performance as Gurnemanz in François Girard’s new production of Parsifal at the Metropolitan Opera, recorded for release on DVD by Deutsche Grammophon.  Verdi’s Messa da Requiem offers Mr. Pape vocal territory that is more congenial for his lovely basso voice.  The forceful writing for the bass soloist in the ‘Tuba mirum’ suits Mr. Pape’s method of vocal production, and he delivers his lines with uncompromising power and secure intonation.  In the ‘Confutatis,’ too, the power of Mr. Pape’s singing counts for much, but he rises to true eloquence in the ‘Offertorio,’ the richness of his timbre making a splendid effect in the ‘Domine Jesu Christe.’  The best of Mr. Pape’s singing is heard in the ‘Hostias,’ in which his soft singing is particularly beautiful.  Mr. Pape possesses every technical element demanded by Verdi’s score, including a respectable effort at trilling, and he is among the few basses who sing the Messa da Requiem today who have the beauty of tone, finesse, and amplitude—rather than mere volume—required to perform the music memorably.

Especially since Wagner rôles have figured prominently in his recent engagements, Jonas Kaufmann has often been compared to Jon Vickers, with whose career the younger singer’s work has shared a number of parallels.  From a purely vocal perspective, the comparison is misleading, however, whatever similarities that exist between the two singers’ work marginalized by the significant differences in their voices.  Despite the intersections in their repertories, Mr. Kaufmann’s voice is considerably leaner than Vicker’s: in the opera house, Mr. Kaufmann largely achieves by projection what Vickers wrought with brute strength.  Under the baton of Sir John Barbirolli, Vickers recorded a surprisingly mellifluous account of the tenor solos in the Messa da Requiem.  Mr. Kaufmann proves even more successful in the music.  His voice lacks the Italianate slancio that can make such a powerful effect in the Requiem, but his security of intonation and tight vibrato are tremendously impressive.  In the ‘Ingemisco,’ arguably Verdi’s greatest test for the tenor soloist, Mr. Kaufmann sings expansively and with great expressiveness, his phrasing consistently insightful.  His mezza voce in the ‘Hostias’ is dulcet but ideally supported on the breath, and his pianissimo singing never relies on the crooning in falsetto to which many tenors resort.  Like Mr. Pape, Mr. Kaufmann bothers to attempt his trills, with credible results.  When power is required, Mr. Kaufmann responds with firm, ringing tone.  Perhaps the most extraordinary quality of Mr. Kaufmann’s singing in this performance is the skill with which he delivers the tenor solos spellbindingly without his dark timbre ever seeming unduly heavy or lugubrious.  In fact, the great success of Mr. Kaufmann’s performance is the way in which his voice soars through Verdi’s music with complete conviction, whether at full throttle or in hushed tones.

The real surprise in the singing of Latvian mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča is the wonderful strength and fruitiness of her lower register.  Ms. Garanča has confirmed in recent seasons that she is among the best young mezzo-sopranos appearing in the world’s opera houses today, her expert technique enabling her to offer thrilling performances of a wide array of rôles ranging from Sesto in Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito and Rossini’s Rosina and Cenerentola to Bizet’s Carmen.  The principal glory of her voice has been her upper register, with an extension to an easy, bright top C, but she digs into the opposite end of her voice with fearlessness in this performance of the Messa da Requiem.  Ms. Garanča’s chest register is not the sort of columnar, granitic instrument brought to Verdi’s score by an Italian mezzo-soprano like Fedora Barbieri, but the finesse with which Ms. Garanča adapts her unique vocal resources to the demands of the music is indicative of a very thoughtful musicality.  She makes the most of every opportunity in the ‘Liber scriptus,’ and her singing in the ‘Recordare’ is particularly beautiful.  Expectedly, there are no worries as Ms. Garanča ascends into her upper register, but the authority with which she takes the lower line in the ‘Agnus Dei,’ music in which correct intonation eludes many singers, is an unexpected joy of the performance.  That she projects such strength in the lower register without audible forcing suggests that Ms. Garanča’s gifts are evolving excitingly, opening doors to opportunities in the Verdi repertory that might have seemed unlikely at the start of her career.  Still, technical niceties are secondary in a work like the Messa da Requiem to the beauty of the singing, and Ms. Garanča provides honeyed sounds in every line that she sings.

Anja Harteros is increasingly laying claim to the legacies of Zinka Milanov and Leontyne Price as the leading Verdi soprano of her generation.  Even remembering that Milanov was Croatian and Price is American, it might be thought that a prerequisite for rising to the top of the roster of Verdi sopranos would be Italian nationality, particularly considering that a vital aspect of a Verdian’s credentials is the morbidezza that can be identified but not taught.  There is a certain Teutonic reserve evident in Ms. Harteros’s singing, but she also displays all of the qualities demanded by Verdi’s sopranos heroines: absolute security throughout the range extending from middle C to top C, good diction, a capable florid technique, and artistry that encompasses depictions of the full gamut of human emotions.  Ms. Harteros brings the same grace and musicality to her performance of the Messa da Requiem that she has shown in recent performances as Leonora in Il Trovatore and Elisabetta in Don Carlos.  The soprano soloist in the Requiem faces many challenges, none more daunting than the ‘Libera me,’ which she sustains almost singlehandedly, her vocal lines expanding over the chorus, and is asked to crown with a pianissimo top B-flat.  If Milanov, Price, and Montserrat Caballé were the mistresses of that floated B-flat, Ms. Harteros has little to fear by comparison.  Throughout the performance, her ability to fill Verdi’s melodic lines with blossoming tone without the slightest hint of shrillness is rewarding, not least in the soprano’s sustained entry in the ‘Hostias.’  Ms. Harteros’s top B and C ring out gorgeously, as well, and she, too, proves as effective in full cry as in a whisper.  Like Puccini, Verdi obviously had special affection for his soprano heroines, as much in the Requiem as in his operas—his secular operas, that is.  None of the soloists in the Requiem has an easy time of it, but to the soprano fall many of the moments for which the listener waits with special anticipation.  Unlike so many sopranos heard in the Requiem in recent years, Ms. Harteros never disappoints.

Though the work owns a prominent place in the repertory of virtually every professional orchestra and choral ensemble in the world, the Messa da Requiem is a difficult piece to bring off: the crispness of Verdi’s dramatic instincts is undermined if the score’s operatic trappings are ignored, and the performance that aims solely at the opera house falls flat.  Despite the presence of the La Scala Chorus and Orchestra, a performance with a Buenos Aires-born conductor presiding over a quartet of soloists comprised of German and Latvian singers might seem destined to lack much of the Italianate spirit, the ambiguities of faith and distrust of conventional religion that shaped Verdi’s composition of the Requiem.  In a sense, Music is its own religion, and those who believe in its power are welcomed into a brotherhood that transcends social orders.  Performances of the Requiem in which all elements of the musical execution are as capably rendered as in this recording are rare, and in a year in which so many of the releases timed to honor the composer’s bicentennial only disclose the disintegration of standards of performing his music, this recording of the Messa da Requiem does Verdi proud and gives the listener reason to celebrate at last.