VERDI: Messa da Requiem – Leontyne Price, sop./ Giulietta Simionato, mezzo-sop./ Giuseppe Zampieri, tenor/ Nicolai Ghiaurov, bass/ Singverein der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde Wien/ Berlin Philharmonic/ Herbert von Karajan – Testament

by | Jan 30, 2014 | Classical Reissue Reviews

VERDI: Messa da Requiem – Leontyne Price, sop./ Giulietta Simionato, mezzo-sop./ Giuseppe Zampieri, tenor/ Nicolai Ghiaurov, bass/ Singverein der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde Wien/ Berlin Philharmonic/ Herbert von Karajan – Testament SBT 1491, 81:37 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****: 

Herbert von Karajan (1908-1989) introduced the 1874 Verdi Requiem (in memory of Manzoni) to the Salzburg Festival in August, 1949, a work that Hans von Bulow had facetiously dubbed “an opera in ecclesiastical robes.”  I had the pleasure of witnessing the ailing Karajan lead his last performance at Salzburg during the Easter-Festival, 1989. But even as early as 1935 Karajan had programmed the work in Aachen; and, according to one critic, “conducted the [score] in a grand and superior way, attacked the score, yet remained flexible and buoyant. He accompanies singers but allows each singer to evaluate what he or she may contribute at any given moment.”

The hushed, ceremonial Requiem aeternam from this Salzburg performance (9 August 1962) opens solemnly on the Berlin Philharmonic cellos, leading soon to the Kyrie eleison, in which the operatic nature of the work reveals itself in vocal quartet and chorus. The revelation of the vocal performance remains soprano Leontyne Price (b. 1927), whom Karajan had deemed “an artist of the future” when he first auditioned her. The appearance of a black artist on the Salzburg stage (in 1959, in Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis) had carried its own social drama.  We know that her final Requiem aeternam dona eis will lift us into transcendent realms. The Kyrie bears the usual Karajan trademarks of potent dynamic contrasts and streamlined vocal arches in both human and instrumental forces. The huge Dies Irae ensues, a nine-section Sequence in superhuman, potent colors, the bass drum’s invoking (tutta forza) the Day of Judgment while the Last Trump sounds – on and off stage – equally fatefully over a wailing chorus of grief. The Salva me and the Lachymosa dies illa eventually soften the sheer terror and permit some heartfelt repentance.

Bass Nicolai Ghiaurov (1929-2004) appeared new to the Festival, and his broad, dark tones illuminate his Tuba mirum and the later Confutatis maledictus. Ghiaurov intones a moving picture of a frail, contrite humanity. The music hurtles Mankind downward once more, and the trumpet and woodwind effects realize pure Dante. The husky mezzo of Giulietta Simionato (1910-2010) punches forward the valediction of the Liber scriptus that heralds more gnashing of teeth. Simionato and Price combine, quasi-Aida-style, for the plaintive Quid sum miser, there joined by tenor Giuseppe Zampieri (1921-1981), a regular at Salzburg since 1957. Zampieri has his intimate moment in the Ingemisco, but for scale of projection he cannot compete with the Bjoerling version with Fritz Reiner.  Simionato and Price merge beautifully once more  in the Recordare, Jesu pie, in which the sparsely accompanied moments ring like refined gold surrounded by a profound mystery. For Karajan’s part, few moments prove so colossal as his orchestral tutti in the Rex tremendae majestatis. Price announces the final sequence, Lacrymosa dies illa, in staid counterpoint to Ghiaurov’s pleas. The male chorus reinforces the depth of moral agony, while the soprano voices – Price and the women’s chorus – point to the possibility of salvation, found in the reconciliation of the vocal quartet.

For the Offertory Verdi adopts a much more liturgical idiom, with a predominantly four-part vocal texture over a restrained accompaniment for the soloists’ Domine Jesu. Trumpet fanfares announce the exhilarating Sanctus and Benedictus, an animated fugue for double chorus based on an inversion of the opening cello motif, with colorful, scurrying orchestral writing. The performance of the Hostias bears an uncanny intimacy of expression, perhaps the most poignant, delicately balanced quartet on record, although Ghiaurov generates the heart of the matter. The Agnus Dei features exchanges between Price and Simionato and chorus, the music noble and refined in offering up the “Lamb of God.”

The three lower voices of the quartet create the Lux aeterna, a personal chant of deliberately shimmering effect. In the Libera me the petitioner appeals to God both in fear and in hope for deliverance. Verdi utilizes some prior thematic materials in this movement. Properly not a part of the liturgy, the Libera me is intoned over the coffin as it leaves the sanctuary of the church. At first dire in tone, the Libera me descends once more into the throes of possible damnation, the Dies Irae. Price’s voice rises out of the soulful ashes, as it were, with a plaint not so far from her beloved core of Negro spirituals. Price and an inflamed, contrapuntal vocal ensemble and full orchestra collaborate in ecstatic terms for the final Libera me whose triumphal, almost Baroque tenor may recall aspects of the old Venetian style. After so much agony and ecstasy, solemnity and pageantry, the Requiem returns to its muted opening, Karajan’s forces having reverted to the power of spiritual contemplation. [So I guess it’s not true any longer that 80 minutes is the maximum length possible on a standard CD. It’s nice to hear it without the usual break in the middle. This work always has required two CDs previously…Ed.]

—Gary Lemco

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