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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Messa da Requiem (1874)
Dinara Alieva (soprano); Olesya Petrova (mezzo-soprano); Francesco Meli (tenor); Dmitry Belosselskiy (bass)
Bolshoi Theatre Chorus
St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra/Yuri Temirkanov
rec. live, 19 December 2017, St. Petersburg Philharmonia
Sung in Latin with English translation.
Video Editor, Alexander Kolganov
Picture format 16:9 anamorphic NTSC
Introductory essay and biographical notes in English
DELOS DVD DV7012 [93 mins]

This concert was designated as a Memorial to the highly esteemed Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky who had died shortly before, on 22 November, at the young age of 56 after a two-year battle against a brain tumour. He had withdrawn earlier from various performances but made a brief comeback, notably at the Metropolitan Opera’s Fifty Year Anniversary Gala of the Company at Lincoln Centre held on May 7th, 2017. It was a last public glimpse and hearing of him and his fabulous voice. Since then, memorial concerts have been given all over the world. The one recorded here was among the first and inevitably there are compromises in respect of who was available to sing and conduct, and such matters as the venue to be arranged at short notice. Some would have liked an all-Russian cast and even claimed it to be so. I don’t know what tenor Francisco Meli thought of that claim, or indeed how even Dmitri himself, who hailed from Siberia would have viewed it! Whatever; the choice of music for a truly great Verdi voice was apt and, despite one or two cavils, the performance was extremely good, set in a magnificent venue with an excellent acoustic well caught by the engineers.

On the rostrum, using his hands, not a baton, Yuri Temirkanov draws sensitive, yet, at appropriate moments, highly dramatic, playing from his orchestra. The variation between the opening, hushed Requiem aeternam and the vibrant Dies irae, is visceral in its emotion and feeling. The choral forces, wholly equal to the varied tempi and modulations that the composer’s music demands, produce an ethereal performance. To hear a Russian choir of this quality, particularly in the lower male voices, is an experience in itself. That is not to question the quality in other sections, notably in the tenors, whose number seems to be greater than what I usually see at choral performances in the UK.

The basso’s entry with the words “Mors stupebit” is chilling in its impact. The soloist, Dmitry Belosselskiy, was new to me and prompted me to find his thrilling singing of Verdi’s music on YouTube where he can be heard in Verdi’s Don Carlo singing Philip’s introductory aria to Act Three, Ella giammai m’amo, followed by the duet for two basso profundos in the clash of the King with the Grand Inquisitor. I digress, but I was greatly impressed by his singing throughout this concert; it matches his physical stature in tonal depth and interpretation of the words. The latter virtue is also to be heard in Francesco Meli’s bright and strongly intoned Ingemisco. His voice has grown into a lyric tenor with heft, albeit at the expense of the softer, vocally caressing head voice of yesteryear. Of the women, I was greatly impressed by the mezzo Olesya Petrova, finding her beauty of tone and expression truly formidable in the Liber scriptus and duets with the soprano Dinara Alieva. Not to imply criticism, but it was a particular pleasure to hear her sharing the concluding long Libera me with her soprano colleague. Not usual, nor a matter noted in the booklet notes! The soprano holds her own amongst this august, ad hoc ensemble, albeit lacking a little of her colleagues’ vocal power.

The accompanying booklet provides a brief introduction and background to the composition (I’ve provided more detail as an appendix to this review), as well as brief details of Hvorostovsky’s career along with a two-page colour spread of him in an unattributed venue, probably Moscow. There are also pictures and biographical details of each of the soloists, the conductor and history of the St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra and of chorus master Valery Borisov.

Robert J Farr

Appendix: Verdi and the genesis of The Requiem
Verdi was not a religious man. Indeed, it is fair to say he was anti-clerical and equally anti-Pope. Many Monarchists and Republicans held the latter view in response to the activities of holders of the Papal office over the period of the fight for Italy’s unification and independence. Those matters notwithstanding, Verdi equally clearly recognised the place of the Catholic Church in the contemporary society in which he lived and worked. When Rossini died in November 1868, and even before the Memorial Service had been held in Paris, Verdi wrote to the Milan Gazzetta Musicale suggesting that the musicians of Italy should unite to honour their great compatriot by combining to write a Requiem for performance on the anniversary of his death. No one would receive payment for his contribution with volunteers to each write one section of the Mass, being drawn by lot. After the performance, which Verdi recognised would lack artistic unity, the score would be sealed up in the Bologna Liceo Musico. The idea was enthusiastically received and a committee set up to oversee the project. To Verdi, pre-eminent among the names, fell the closing section, the Libera Me. He had his composition ready in good time despite revising La Forza del Destino along the way. Problems arose in respect of the chorus and orchestra, for which Verdi, somewhat unfairly, blamed his friend the conductor Mariani and the project floundered. Verdi met the costs incurred.

In the year of Rossini’s death, aided by arrangements connived at by his wife and long-time friend Clarina Maffei, Verdi visited his idol Alessandro Manzoni. He had read Manzoni’s novel I promessi sposi when aged sixteen, and in his fifty third year he wrote to a friend, “according to me, Manzoni has written not only the greatest book of our time but one of the greatest books that ever came out of the human brain.” The novel has been described as representing for Italians all of Scottt, Dickens and Thackery rolled into one and infused with the spirit of Tolstoy. It was not merely the nature of Manzoni’s partly historical story that gave the work this ethos, but the language. With it, Manzoni made vital steps towards a national Italian language to replace the proliferation of dialects and foreign, administrative languages present in the peninsular. When Manzoni died in May 1873, after a fall, Verdi was devastated to the extent that he could not go to the funeral, for which the shops of Milan were closed, and the streets lined with thousands. The King sent two Princes of the Royal Blood to carry the flanking cords, who were aided by the Presidents of the Senate and Chamber as well as the Ministers of Education and Foreign Affairs. A week after the funeral Verdi went to Milan and visited the grave alone. Then, through his publisher, Ricordi, he proposed to the Mayor of Milan that he should write a Requiem Mass to honour Manzoni to be performed in Milan on the first anniversary of Manzoni’s death. There would be no committee this time. Verdi proposed that he himself would compose the entire Mass, pay the expenses of preparing and printing the music, specify the church for the first performance, choose the singers and chorus, rehearse them and conduct the premiere; the city would pay the cost of the performance. Thereafter the Requiem would belong to Verdi. The city accepted with alacrity.

With artistic unity guaranteed by the single composer, Verdi intended the work to have a regular place in the repertoire just like his operas and other works. Although he had already composed a Libera Me for the aborted Rossini Requiem, Verdi largely re-wrote it, thus ensuring even greater compositional coherence than might otherwise have been the case. He selected the Church of San Marco for the premiere, considering it to have the best proportions and acoustics. On 22 May 1874, the first anniversary of Manzoni’s death, with an orchestra of one hundred and a chorus of one hundred and twenty, it was given to acclaim. Three days later, Verdi conducted another performance at La Scala and which was followed by two more conducted by Faccio. Argument raged that Verdi, although using the ecclesiastical text, had not written music of that oeuvre. The work is certainly not in the tradition of ecclesiastical works set to counterpoint and fugues, which at least some purists conceded did not detract from its religious message. Despite criticisms of this nature, the Requiem travelled to Paris where Verdi was made a Commander of the Legion of Honour. After Paris, performances in London and Vienna followed with the work acclaimed in each.


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