VERDI: Requiem – Anja Harteros, sop./ Elina Garanca, mezzo-sop./ Jonas Haufmann, tenor/ Rene Pape, bass/ Orchestra and Chorus of La Scala/ Daniel Barenboim – Decca (2 CDs)

by | Nov 14, 2013 | Classical CD Reviews

VERDI: Requiem – Anja Harteros, sop./ Elina Garanca, mezzo-sop./ Jonas Haufmann, tenor/ Rene Pape, bass/ Orchestra and Chorus of La Scala/ Daniel Barenboim – Decca B0018946 (2 CDs), 85:59 [Distr. by Universal] (9/3/13) ****1/2:

Daniel Barenboim is already responsible for one of the most acclaimed recordings of this piece ever, his 1994 sensation with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus that made one heck of a splash, now available on Apex at a budget price.

But that was then, and even though the sound still holds up to a certain degree it’s not what we expect in this day and age, and the fact of his linkage with the CSO almost guaranteed that certain interpretative decisions would be geared to that orchestra’s strengths—namely powerful brass and sharp-edged phrasing that steered itself directly to the bombastic and explosive aspects of the score. This new one is quite different.

Verdi’s work of course, dedicated to the memory of his hero and admired writer/patriot Alessandro Manzoni, has long become an established favorite among international concert goers. It was that way from the beginning; the first performance was actually at a mass for Manzoni in San Marco in Milan, the chant portions being taken from local Ambrosian Chant sources. After that the piece began what amounted to a worldwide tour, and within a few years had conquered the world. For a while, anyway; it fell into neglect because of changing tastes and resurgent nationalism, its rather provincial cultural décor overlooked as something too dated and even “operatic” for a serious religious work. Composers like Brahms thought this ridiculous and defended the work indomitably. Eventually it worked its way back to the active repertory, and by 1930 was firmly established once again, some even considering it the “greatest” of all requiems, though the point is highly debatable. What is true is that the piece reflects a very Roman Catholic and rather stringent look on the afterlife as experienced in nineteenth century Italy. Politics play a role too; the failure of the Italian states to unify is something that Verdi, a public servant himself at one point, took to heart all too seriously, and Manzoni’s death led him not to despair but surely to an attitude of rather bleak expectations for his beloved Italy. There can be no doubt that Verdi, the sometime believer and sometime agnostic, was channeling his own disappointments about the political scene and the loss of someone (Manzoni) who could have made a difference in the realization of nationalist dreams. Even the most jaded believer has trouble reconciling Verdi’s hyper-medieval vision of the Day of Wrath with that of a loving God. But if this is wrath directed at the failures of a nation-state its warlike tone makes far more sense.

With the Grammy-winning recording from the Chicago Symphony in 2011, Riccardo Muti’s third recording, and the recent CSO broadcast in October for Verdi’s birthday celebrations, it makes for interesting contrasts with this new release from Barenboim, already a confirmed Verdian himself with that same orchestra. Muti’s release for CSO is overrated, despite the awards—the solo singing is really awful (though the chorus and orchestra are terrific), and aside from one singer in the recent broadcast my opinion stands for it as well. Chicago has this reputation that it might never get beyond, as a bombastic and super-charged ensemble incapable of subtlety. This is an obvious over-reaction, but there is some truth in the notion that many conductors who perform there are tempted to head down this lane simply because of that reputation. Muti does, no mistake. Coupled with his penchant for no-nonsense interpretation—which sometimes works perfectly—Muti’s CSO recording, despite the splendid SACD sound, misses the mark.

Barenboim hits it, and hits it hard. Oh, the Dies Irae still packs a wallop, and the Decca sound, even in two-channel, is quite spectacular. But most of all what impresses is the intense emotion of this reading, done live in Milan. The singers, to a man or woman, are superb, maybe the best since Shaw. The chorus gives quarter to no one, and the orchestra has lived with this work since the premiere, knowing it better than anyone in the world. Barenboim softens some of the edges, making for a more humane Requiem, and shapes the work lovingly and with great affection—and lack of affectation. Muti’s explodes while Barenboim implodes, seeking resolution within the core of the work as opposed to firing rockets of wrath on the audience, and the results are brilliant and thrilling.

I won’t discard Shaw, Abbado/Berlin, Barbirolli, or even the intensely introverted—and wonderfully recorded SACD—Harnoncourt.

There is no perfect Verdi Requiem—the work is too multifaceted and interpretatively variant—but this one comes really close, and is the best I have heard for a number of years.

—Steven Ritter

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