14 December 2014

CD REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi – MESSA DA REQUIEM (K. Stoyanova, M. Prudenskaya, S. Pirgu, O. Anastassov; Chor und Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks; M. Jansons; BR-Klassik 900126)

CD REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi - MESSA DA REQUIEM (BR-Klassik 900126)GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901): Messa da RequiemKrassimira Stoyanova (soprano), Marina Prudenskaya (mezzo-soprano), Saimir Pirgu (tenor), Orlin Anastassov (bass); Chor und Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks; Mariss Jansons, conductor [Recorded in performance in the Philharmonie im Gasteig, Munich, Germany, 7 – 11 October 2013; BR-Klassik 900126; 2 CD, 86:23; Available from Amazon, BR-Klassik, ClassicsOnline, iTunes, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

In recent years, Giuseppe Verdi’s Messa da Requiem has been in danger of over-exposure—or, rather, of falling victim to insurmountably-flawed performances that leave audiences hearing the score for the first time wondering why the work, a product of Verdi’s most inspired creative maturity, is so frequently performed by forces ranging from university music departments to the most renowned soloists, choruses, and orchestras. One of the most gnawing questions for those who love any musical masterpiece is whether the longing to hear the work performed outweighs the disappointment of hearing it performed poorly, and avowed Twenty-First-Century Verdians have been compelled, not least during the global commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the composer’s birth that dominated performance diaries throughout the world in 2013, to shake their heads at traversals of the Messa da Requiem that left the impression that Verdi surely lacked true understanding of composing effectively for voices. This is absurd, of course, but the novice introduced to the Messa da Requiem in such a context must be forgiven for the mistaken assumption. Recorded in performance at Munich’s Philharmonie im Gasteig during the Verdi Bicentennial year, BR-Klassik’s superbly-engineered, sonically atmospheric recording preserves an account of the Requiem that, while falling short of ideal, reminds the listener of the extraordinary emotive potential of the music. Most significantly, this performance reaffirms that, even in heaven-storming music like that in Verdi’s Messa da Requiem, beauty and delicacy can be as awe-inspiring as coldly forceful walls of sound.

Conducted by Mariss Jansons with measured intensity that allows appreciation of the subtleties of Verdi’s music, the performances of the Chor und Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks combine Teutonic discipline with Italianate brio in a way that fosters an uncommon degree of accuracy whilst avoiding rigidity. The contrasts between the hushed opening of the ‘Kyrie’ and the explosive fervor of the ‘Dies irae’ managed by the choristers are arresting, but the prevailing atmosphere of reverence is never abandoned in favor of overtly operatic extravagance. In the tricky double chorus in the ‘Sanctus,’ the choristers devote special energy to maintaining laudable precision, and the focus dedicated to contrapuntal passages in all parts of the Requiem is commendable. The exemplary singing of the chorus is wonderfully supported by the unerring virtuosity of the orchestral playing, which reaches formidable peaks of emotional engagement under Maestro Jansons’s leadership. Verdi makes arduous demands on the musicians’ abilities, requiring a dynamic spectrum akin to that asked of the choristers. Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of Maestro Jansons’s approach to the score is the manner in which he conducts with an emphasis on the architecture of the score as a whole without overlooking details of phrasing and orchestration. Thematic development, handled as deftly by Verdi in the Requiem as by Beethoven in his Missa solemnis, is given space in which to expand organically but is not permitted to drag. In some of its harmonic progressions and bold rhythms, the Requiem is Verdi’s most ‘modern’ work, more progressive than even Otello and Falstaff, and Maestro Jansons paces an account of the score that succeeds both as a sentimentally-charged performance and an academic treatise on the work’s significance in Verdi’s output and the broader advancement of choral music in the last quarter of the Nineteenth Century.

Bulgarian bass Orlin Anastassov anchors the solo quartet capably, fielding a well-projected, secure voice that moves through the music easily. His singing in both ‘Mors stupebit’ and ‘Rex tremendae’ finds his range slightly short at the bottom of the staff, his lowest notes sounding considerably weaker than the voice’s upper octave. Mr. Anastassov’s rounded tones are heard to advantage in the incendiary phrases of the ‘Confutatis,’ however, and the singer’s careful phrasing in the ‘Lux aeterna’ complements his colleagues’ insightful treatment of the text. Though greater tonal bulk at the bottom of the range would make a stronger effect in Verdi’s vocal lines, Mr. Anastassov sings steadily and often beautifully. It is frequently the bass soloist who compromises the effectiveness of the solo quartet in this music, and that Mr. Anastassov certainly does not do in this performance.

The Messa da Requiem figured prominently in Saimir Pirgu’s celebrations of the Verdi Bicentennial, and one of the finest attributes of BR-Klassik’s recording of the work is its documentation of the young Albanian’s instinctive way with this score. The voice is of virtually ideal proportions for the music: with a sensitive conductor at his side, he need neither hold back in moments of introspection nor force in the muscular climaxes. In terms of technique, he lacks only the trill for the ‘Hostias,’ and the beauty of tone that he has at his command is more than ample compensation. In this performance, Mr. Pirgu makes a strong impression at his first entrance, and the elegance and vigor of his singing never founder. He has no trouble with the range of his part, his tone retaining freedom and attractiveness to top B♭. His singing of the familiar ‘Ingemisco,’ typically regarded as the greatest test of the tenor’s abilities in the Requiem, is managed with heady elegance, the singer’s mezza voce gorgeously evoking a sense of piety. In many ways, though, it is in the ‘Hostias’ that the tenor is most cruelly tried by Verdi, and it is here that Mr. Pirgu does his finest singing in this performance. There is something of the honeyed melancholy of Ferruccio Tagliavini in his voicing of the melodic line, and he is a source of solidity to his colleagues in the fugue on ‘Quam olim Abrahae.’ Like Mr. Anastassov, Mr. Pirgu sings his lines in the ‘Lux aeterna’ with deep consideration of the meaning of the words. Throughout this performance, Mr. Pirgu distinguishes himself with thoughtful, focused singing of deceptively difficult music.

Mezzo-soprano Marina Prudenskaya’s first notes establish a high level of accomplishment from which she never deviates in the course of this performance. She seizes the opportunity given to her by Verdi in the ‘Liber scriptus,’ singing with pointed but never harsh tone that takes on increased brightness as the tessitura of her music climbs. In both ‘Quid sum miser’ and ‘Recordare,’ she blends her voice with that of her soprano colleague with close attention to the resulting mixes of timbres and vibrati. Ms. Prudenskaya’s singing gleams in the ‘Agnus dei’ with the soprano and chorus, and she takes the high lines in the ‘Lux aeterna’ with unhesitating brilliance, joining Mr. Pirgu and Mr. Anastassov in a moving delivery of the text. The evenness of Ms. Prudenskaya’s voice throughout her range is appreciable, and her judicious use of chest voice suggests a rare understanding of how raw ability and technique must be employed in tandem both to meet the needs of a specific piece of music and to ensure vocal longevity. Ms. Prudenskaya is one of the few mezzo-sopranos recorded in Verdi’s Requiem since the start of the new millennium who sounds genuinely comfortable in the music.

Krassimira Stoyanova is one of the world’s most adaptable singers. An intrepid Mozartean, she has also conquered the impassioned bel canto of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, the smoldering femininity of Dvořák’s Rusalka, and the melancholic grandeur of Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos. Solely within the Verdi repertory, her versatility has proved remarkable, her gallery of memorable Verdi characterizations spanning the composer’s career. From a purely vocal perspective, the writing for the soprano soloist in the Requiem is the pinnacle of Verdi’s genius for creating exquisite music for soprano heroines. The successful soprano soloist in the Requiem must have the animation of Giovanna d’Arco, the chameleonic stylistic variety of Violetta, Aida’s ability to hold her own in ensembles, and Desdemona’s gift for soaring aloft. Despite occasional wiriness at the top of the voice and a few instances of forcing, inevitable in live performance for all but the most ironclad voices, Ms. Stoyanova comes nearer to exhibiting all of these qualities than almost any other soprano singing today. She reaches top C without prompting worries about vocal meltdown, and she displays a winsome confidence on her music’s climactic top B♭s. Ms. Stoyanova responds to Ms. Prudenskaya’s incisive singing in the ‘Quid sum miser’ and ‘Recordare’ with singing of equal power. She makes of the ‘Domine Jesu Christe’ a deeply personal statement, and the poise of her vocalism in the exposed lines of the ‘Libera me’ is stirring. Ms. Stoyanova’s is not a plush voice, but she is skilled at conjuring impressions of tonal amplitude with assiduous projection. This is less apparent on a recording than in an opera house, but the voice is very flatteringly recorded here. It is hardly possible to claim to be an important Verdi soprano without mastering the complexities of the Requiem. The legitimacy of Ms. Stoyanova’s claim is considerably enhanced by this generously expressive, appealingly-sung performance.

Virtually every listener who loves Verdi’s Messa da Requiem has at least one recording that, for reasons musical or sentimental, could almost never be surpassed. Indeed, there are performances in the Requiem’s discography that define the histrionic possibilities of Verdi’s music: Ezio Pinza’s singing of the bass solos in Sabajno’s 1929 recording and the wonderful Serafin recording made a decade later; Cesare Siepi’s refined singing for Toscanini and de Sabata; the glowing timbre of the young Renata Tebaldi, also with de Sabata; the spectacular vocalism of Leontyne Price and Jussi Björling under Reiner’s baton; the full-throated glory—and real trills—of Richard Tucker with Ormandy; the unmatchable tones of Lili Chookasian and Carlo Bergonzi with Leinsdorf; the combination of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Christa Ludwig with the aristocratic Giulini; the eloquence of Robert Shaw and idiomatic zeal of Riccardo Muti. No individual element of BR-Klassik’s recording is likely to supplant cherished performances in listeners’ affections, but this recording succeeds in ways in which many recordings fail. It preserves a performance featuring well-matched soloists, choristers and orchestra players capable of scaling Verdi’s musical mountains without faltering, and a conductor with respect for the score and the musicians following his beat. All of the artists, musical and technical, involved with this recording also respect the listener by providing a performance of the Messa da Requiem that is both an enjoyable experience and a worthy homage to the of prodigy of Le Roncole.