Verdi: Messa da Requiem (In Memory of Dmitri Hvorostovsky) – Dinara Alierva, soprano/ Olesya Petrova, mezzo-soprano/ Francesco Meli, tenor/ Dmitry Belosselskiy, bass/ Bolshoi Theater Chorus/ St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra/ Yuri Temirkinov – Delos DE 3563 (2 CDs) TT: 90:20 (10/19/18) [Distr. By Naxos] ****:

Recorded in concert 19 December 2017 at the St. Petersburg Philharmonia, the great vocal piece by Verdi (1868; 1874) means at once to celebrate Rossini and Italian poet Alessandro Manzoni, whom Verdi called “a model of virtue and patriotism.”   Verdi felt that Manzoni’s novel I promessi sposi (“The Betrothed”) to be the “greatest novel of our epoch, but one of the greatest ever to emerge from the human brain.”  At the same time, this grandly and slowly evolved performance pays tribute to the late Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky (1962-2017) who enjoyed an international repute for his lyrico-dramatic style.

Some have called the Requiem a great “opera” that employs liturgical means. Like Brahms, Verdi fostered little real “faith,” in the orthodox sense. The work remains a personal performance piece, an expression of hopes for the peace afforded a worthy soul after a lifetime of devoted service.  The terrors of the afterlife rather serve a dire dramatic vehicle for a desire for universal solace in the face of Death’s unknowns.  After the muted texture of the Requiem and optimistic Kyrie, the insistent high G’s of the Dies Irae and its opening of an abyss become increasingly terrifying. Thunder and fire assume real shapes in the piccolo part and relentless drum strokes. We hear of the Book of Judgment and the subsequent appeals for mercy.  The Lacrimosa will invite weeping for misdeeds as well as for those who must bear the loss of loved ones. Even at the closing section Verdi seems to doubt that anything like “redemption” exists.

Giuseppe Verdi, photo by Giacomo Brogi

Giuseppe Verdi,
photo by Giacomo Brogi

I recall having attended a rehearsal of the Atlanta Symphony by visiting Yuri Termirkanov (b. 1938), who chided the players for their “American” habit of cutting short the decay of the last notes of phrases.  “Snip, snip!” he reprimanded.  Here, the conductor remains intent to savor every musical tone and combination, say, the eight trumpets – four of them off stage) that blast the Tuba mirum into our collective souls. The strain on soprano Dinara Alieva’s tessitura wants her heartfelt pleas to shatter the ionosphere. Mezzo-soprano Petrova melts us with her search for spiritual consolation, especially her duet in the Recordare: Juste judex ultionis: donum fac remissionis. Tenor Francesco Meli intones the plaintive Ingemisco, rife with guilt and self-accusation, hoping to find a place among the blessed. His sweet voice has a natural buoyancy, but few lyric tenors can combine their fluency with the spinto power Bjoerling brought to the part. The Confutatis maledictus from basso Dmitry Belosselskiy enjoys a chesty resonance that reminds me of Boris Christoff. No less impressive, the Bolshoi Theater Chorus under Valery Borisov consistently injects a huge responsive to the demands of the music, especially in the ecstatic double fugue in the Sanctus. The a cappella soli sequences perhaps gain the most intimacy, with the chorus sliding under the four vocalists—for the Lachrymosa—in darkly hushed poignancy.

Mercy provides the theme of the Offertorium, which proffers the most flexible, “operatic” aria in the composition. The threat of Hell finds alleviation in the “holy light” of Christ’s forgiveness that promises every numinous blessing. The St. Petersburg trumpets declare the Sanctus’ “Holy, holy, holy, Lord of Hosts!” with unbuttoned vibrancy. The Agnus Dei utilizes a kind of spare minimalism, stripping the texture—chorus, soprano, and mezzo-soprano—to convey deep contemplation of the most personal communion, the sins of the world having been expunged. The St. Petersburg flutes no less contribute to this paean to Paradise Regained. Verdi asks his soprano, still plagued by doubt, to conclude his spiritual odyssey, intoning the opening lines of the Libera me for deliverance from the vision of awful damnation, the grievous sounds of the Dies Irae. This sonic world, like in T.S. Eliot, ends in a whisper, an almost inaudible “Deliver me.”

A hugely mounted performance, this by Termirkanov and company, but its grandly ponderous approach may incline auditors of the Toscanini, Reiner, and De Sabata school to live in their brisker company.

—Gary Lemco