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REVIEW


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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Messa da Requiem (1874) [77:45]
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 NativeDSD
Pdf booklet included
LSO LIVE LSO0800 SACD [77:45]

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 bass Ruggero Raimondi, 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 times.

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, Pertusi sounds small – and distant – in the Mors stupebit; he’s certainly not a patch on Raimondi here.

It’s not just the bass; 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 applause.

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 indescribably moving.

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 this.

Noseda’s Requiem is a real disappointment, not least for its bizarre sonics; Sir Colin’s performance is in another league entirely.

Dan Morgan

 




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