Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Messa da Requiem
Erika Grimaldi (soprano), Daniela Barcellona (mezzo), Francesco Meli
(tenor), Michele Pertusi (bass)
London Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra/Gianandrea Noseda
rec. live, 18 & 20 September 2016, Barbican, London
Reviewed as a stereo DSD64 download from
Pdf booklet included
LSO LIVE LSO0800 SACD
For me and, I suspect, for many others hearing the Verdi Requiem for
the first time was an unforgettable experience. I came to the piece via Sir
John Barbirolli’s 1970 recording for EMI-Warner; the LPs sounded marvellous
– the soft bass-drum thuds in the Mors stupebit especially memorable
– and soprano Montserrat Caballé is at her exquisite, softly floated best.
As for the tenor Jon Vickers, he’s a powerful presence throughout. Alas, on
CD it sounds too bright, and glorious John’s tempi now seem rather
ponderous. What an initiation, though.
After that I discovered Carlo Maria Giulini’s legendary 1964 recording,
also on EMI-Warner, with soloists Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Christa Ludwig and
the two Nicolais (Gedda and Ghiaurov). Unfortunately, the shocking
distortion in the climaxes ruined that one for me. Giulini’s two other
recordings – from the Royal Albert Hall in 1963 and the Royal Festival Hall in 1964 – may not boast such stellar quartets, but musically and
technically they are much easier to live with. Sir Georg Solti’s two
versions – for Decca and RCA – were in my LP collection, but not for long. Soprano Leontyne Price is
lovely in the latter, but it’s the tenor Veriano Luchetti whom I remember
most. The sound was rather dry, though, and Solti is just too driven at
Other, less appealing, versions followed, among them Robert Shaw on Telarc and Richard Hickox on Chandos, both too cool for my liking; even less
recommendable is Yuri Temirkanov’s rough and ready Parma video (C Major) which, rather ominously, features Noseda’s tenor. Francesco Meli. I’ve
since heard Nikolaus Harnoncourt on RCA, but despite fine soloists and a superb Super Audio recording I found that
one slightly wanting, too. Part of the problem with the Requiem is
that it’s an uneasy hybrid – is it church music or is it opera? – and
getting the right balance is quite a challenge.
Among the most recent recordings I’d say Riccardo Muti (CSO Resound) gets it right most of the time, but then it’s a work he knows well.
Listening to the splendid 24/96 download from eClassical, I was struck by the warmth and pliancy of his performance – this famously
volatile maestro has mellowed – not to mention the airy acoustic. He also
has a decent quartet and chorus, the latter sounding deeply devotional when
it really matters. As for the sound. it has all the depth, richness and
wide – but sensible –dynamics the piece demands. I’ve not heard Lorin
Maazel’s Munich account (Sony) or Antonio Pappano’s (Warner), both of which have been well received on these pages.
The competition doesn’t end there. In January 2009, Sir Colin Davis
recorded the Requiem for LSO Live with a strong set of soloists:
Christine Brewer (soprano), Karen Cargill (mezzo), Stuart Neill (tenor) and
John Relyea (bass). This should be the most interesting comparison of all,
as he and Noseda share the same choral/orchestral forces, the same venue
and the same recording team (The Classic Sound). In both cases I wondered
how the engineers would deal with the Barbican’s ‘difficult’ acoustic. NativeDSD have the Davis recording in their catalogue, but as I already had the 24/96
download from eClassical I’ve used that as my comparative version here.
Noseda’s Kyrie, which starts at the edge of audibility, isn’t
particularly well shaped. Speeds are on the swift side – the performance
overall clocks in at 77:45, even quicker than Hickox’s 80:00 – and while
his soloists seem decent enough Meli is quite stretched at the outset. That
said, the incisive singing of the LSO Chorus is very impressive indeed.
They and the LSO are unflappable, even when Noseda tears into the first Dies irae; goodness, he’s not one to dawdle, is he? The brass
playing in the Tuba mirum is splendid, and the choral attack is
simply breathtaking. However, Meli sounds small – and distant – in the Mors stupebit; he’s certainly not a patch on Vickers here.
It’s not just the tenor; all four soloists are too backwardly balanced, and
that, combined with a very close orchestra and chorus, makes it difficult
to find an ideal volume setting. This is something I’ve also noticed with
several Chandos recordings of late, and it’s not a trend I welcome. The CSO
perspectives are much more natural, and that allows one to listen without
the need for constant knob twiddling. This irritation aside, mezzo Daniela
Barcellona is heartfelt in the Liber scriptus; not only that, her
top notes are effortless and unerringly pitched.
There’s no such thing as a perfect quartet, and these soloists certainly
don’t meld as well as I’d like in the Quid sum miser – soprano Erika
Grimaldi’s rather wide vibrato doesn’t help – but at least Meli sounds
happier now. Bass Michele Pertusi is warm and well-focused here. As
expected, I had to turn the volume down in the Rex tremendae,
as the combined chorus and orchestra are just too overpowering. It doesn’t
have to be this way – Noseda’s LSO Live recording of Britten’s War Requiem is much more realistically presented; indeed, you’d hardly know the
Barbican was such an awkward hall in which to record.
Despite the operatic nature of Verdi’s Requiem, Noseda brings out
more orchestral colour and detail than most of his rivals, every last shift
and nuance well caught by the microphones. Trouble is, while Grimaldi and
Barcellona are radiant in the Recordare, it’s all too easy to be
seduced by the loveliness that surrounds and cossets them. As for Meli, he
atones for his earlier sins with a strong, nicely shaded account of the Ingemisco; one can certainly hear why he’s so well regarded in the bel canto repertoire. As for Pertusi, he’s wonderfully virile in the Confutatis.
The return of that jumbo-sized Dies irae may irk me, but head
bangers and bass-drum junkies will love it. After that ride shock, some
fine singing in the Lacrymosa – as before, Barcellona is
outstanding – but it’s Noseda who generates a sense of theatre at this
point. Indeed, the closing bars of this section have a quiet intensity I’ve
rarely encountered elsewhere. Such feeling comes as a surprise, given that
Noseda’s Requiem is generally taut and sinewy. Muti is rather less
ripped, shall we say, and that makes for a softer, more pliable reading all
round. If there’s a trade-off it’s that the latter bends rhythms and
phrases in a way that won’t please everyone.
Noseda’s Domine Jesu Christe, Hostias, Agnus Dei, Lux aeterna and Libera me are all reliably done, but once
again it’s Verdi’s orchestral writing that tends to draw the ear. In
between the Sanctus has admirable urge and clarity, and I managed to
mute the final Dies irae with a nanosecond to spare. Grimaldi also
redeems herself with a finely spun Requiem aeternam, Still swift
and keenly focused, Noseda draws lovely sounds from his chorus and players.
I suppose the upside of his no-nonsense approach is that it avoids the
occasional droop and sag that afflicts Muti’s performance; the downside is
that it robs the final pages of their devotional character. There is no
So, how does Davis compare? His Kyrie is persuasively shaped and his
choir is set in a wider, deeper soundstage. Like Muti, he’s more expansive,
and that allows the music to breathe in a way that it never does with
Noseda. The soloists are more forwardly placed too – this is what I’d
expect in the concert hall – and they’re a well-blended, characterful team
to boot. Most welcome, though, is the manageable recording – I set the
volume at the start and left it alone – not to mention a natural fusion of
the work’s operatic and liturgical elements.
But the real bonus here is that the Dies irae – the hard-stick timps
really do sound like the crack of doom – is awe-inspiring without being
catapulted into one’s lap. Indeed, there’s a sane, real-world feel to this
entire performance that makes Noseda’s seem edgy and synthetic by
comparison. That said, it’s swings and roundabouts where the soloists are
concerned; for instance, Neill’s isn’t a big voice, but he’s still
preferable to Meli in the Mors stupebit, but Barcellona trumps the
slightly tremulous Cargill in the Liber scriptus. Davis’s soloists
make a better blend in the Quid sum miser; Brewer is gorgeous here,
and Relyea is both dark and firm.
I found myself immersed in this Requiem in a way that I wasn’t with
Noseda’s – or Muti’s, for that matter – and Davis, the instinctive
dramatist, must take the credit for that. In his hands the Recordare actually gains in power through being properly shaded and proportioned, the
choral interjections delivered with tremendous conviction and bite.
Speaking of interjections, Davis is audible at times, but I suspect only
the keenest of ears will be aware of it. I love the way he rocks the music
here – quintessential Verdi – which brings to mind his supple and
imaginative treatment of similar passages in the Berlioz Requiem. In
short, he knows just when to yield and let the master speak.
And it just gets better. Neill sings with operatic reach and ardour in the Ingemisco, Davis
is an alert and sensitive accompanist throughout, and
Relyea is predictably solid in the Confutatis. Like Noseda, Davis
makes the most of Verdi’s orchestral writing; more important, his phrasing
is so natural, his rhythms so lovingly sprung. Goodness, this is a truly
great conductor at work, and how sorely he is missed. The return of the Dies irae marks another of those dramatic peaks that’s all the more
effective for being so judiciously scaled. And just listen to the subtle
swing that Davis brings to the Lacrymosa, his quartet very much at
ease as well.
Every note of Davis’s Requiem fills me with affection and wonder,
and that’s rare for me. Perhaps that’s because his performance really feels
like a live one – Noseda’s never does – and it’s as if we’re hearing this
glorious score straight out of the crucible in which it was forged. That,
too, is rare, but then this reading is full of epiphanies. From the Domine Jesu Christe onwards everyone seems gripped by the unfolding
drama, prompting them to give of their individual and collective best.
Brewer’s lovely line and floated high notes remind me of Caballé at her
peak, and there’s a deep sense of communion in the Hostias that’s
And what a blazing start to the Sanctus, the chorus’s antiphonal
response to the brass thrillingly presented in what is a very convincing
stereo spread. And what poised singing from all concerned in the Agnus Dei and Lux aeterna. In particular, there’s a tension
in the orchestra – a sense of approaching finality, perhaps – that one
doesn’t hear with Noseda. Also, that dark, tolling figure in the latter is
unforgettable, the soloists singing with a liberating loveliness that’s
equally memorable. As for Davis, he knows how to be incisive without being
hard edged, and that also sets him apart from Noseda: that final Dies irae is a case in point. But it’s the closing pages –
sung and played with uncommon beauty and commitment – that set the seal on
this truly remarkable event. Again, there is no applause.
I was very surprised to discover that Davis’s LSO Requiem hadn’t
already been reviewed on these pages. In some ways, I almost wish I’d
headlined it instead of the Noseda which, despite its occasional
highlights, isn't the complete performance this one is. And compared
with Classic Sound’s earlier effort, their later one is both crass and
crude. Noseda isn’t blameless, though, and I do hope his recently announced
Shostakovich cycle with the LSO is better conducted and engineered than
Noseda’s Requiem is a real disappointment, not least for its bizarre
sonics; Sir Colin’s performance is in another league entirely.