Pristine and Mark Obert-Thorn restore the premiere recording of the Verdi Requiem, whose might and majesty resound stylistically.
VERDI: Requiem in Memory of Manzoni – World Premiere Recording – Maria Luisa Fanelli, soprano/ Irene Minghini-Cattaneo, mezzo-soprano/ Franco Lo Guidice, tenor/ Ezio Pinza,bass/ Chorus and Orchestra of La Scala, Milan/ Carlo Sabajno – Pristine Audio PACO 148, 77:34 [www.pristrineclassical.com] ****:
The death of Rossini in 1868 first motivated Verdi to conceive a requiem; but it was in 1873 that the author Alessandro Manzoni died—a creative artist committed to Italian independence and unification—whose passing provided the efficient cause for Verdi’s return to religious writing, demanding that he study such compositions by Mozart, Cherubini, and Berlioz to regain the requisite skills for his own expression.
For the Requiem’s premiere recording (3-13 September 1929) producer Fred Gaisberg, for Italian Disco Grammophono, engaged Carlo Sabajno (1874-1938) who had served as Toscanini’s assistant during the latter’s period as chief conductor at Turin and also conducted there himself. In 1904 Sabajno became The Gramophone Company’s Italian house conductor (an appointment via Gaisberg which was in effect the equivalent of the ‘Artists and Repertory’ manager of later years) with responsibility for all aspects of production, such as selection of repertoire and the engagement of artists, actually in addition to conducting in the studio: in France the conductor Piero Coppola held a similar position. Sabajno devoted himself to the nascent recording industry and seems subsequently to have conducted little if at all in the concert hall or opera house. He did, however, compose a little, writing songs especially for the gramophone. Producer and Audio-restoration Engineer Mark Obert-Thorn provides details for the painstaking work required to rectify problems in the original shellacs, not the least of which lie in the distortion and shatter of the high notes in the reading by soprano Fanelli, whose vocal range and technique sadly cannot meet with Verdi’s (operatic) demands. The Ricordare (duet) and Agnus Dei, in particular, suffer the soprano’s shortcomings.
The choral work, however, enjoys a luster consonant with Verdi’s artistic ambition. From a philosophical vantage point, the Requiem provides a canvas in which the soul struggles to reaffirm its faith, given the impenetrable mysteries and sources of anguish one endures in the course of a lifetime. The Requiem opens with a gasping, shadowy Requiem aeternam that yields to a brief sense of consolation, Lux aeterna. Sudden as it is cruel, the Dies irae—in nine parts—tears away the veil of solace, even as sinners plead for salvation. The soloists appear in various combinations and with the chorus, the fierce, chromatic line jolting the chorus in octaves, manic orchestral runs that consign souls to the fiery pit, and the various stresses undergirded by apocalyptic tympani. In terms of parallel dramatic structure, the later Libera me for soprano solo and chorus will plea for mercy in the midst of towering guilt and an inflamed, even polyphonic, sense of God’s wrath. The concluding page of the soprano’s pleadings leads to a C Major coda that barely offers Mankind eternal hope.
We can well applaud Maestro Sabajnoi for his contribution to the chorus and orchestra, as in the diminished sound—sotto voce—for Quantas tremor est futurus in the second stanza of the Dies irae. True to its words, the trumpet and brass fanfare “scatters a marvelous sound” in the Tuba mirum spargens sonum that soon will compel “Death and Nature to stand aghast.” Here, the great basso Ezio Pinza (1892-1957) describes Judgment Day in one of the many exemplary realizations he provides in Verdi’s music. The amazing fugue for double chorus, the Sanctus, reaches a fine pinnacle, especially given the still-early development in electircal recording. Mezzo-soprano Minghini-Cattaneo matches Pinza for stylistic authenticity in her Liber scriptus proferetur and the Judex ergo cum sedebit, wherein the Book Judgment shall preserve Heaven’s justice. The lovely melody for Lacrymosa dies illa belongs to her—a tearful plea for eternal rest—responded to by an ardent chorus. A potent moment arises in the choral basses’ Rex tremendae majestatis, to be followed by the vocal quartet’s Salve me, fons pietatis that will embrace the full chorus and orchestra. I am uncertain as to my admiration of tenor Franco Lo Giudice (1895-1982), especially given future renditions of Ingemisco by the likes of Gigle and Bjoerling. But Toscanini applauded Giudice’s work, especially in music by Puccini. His lyricism can sound strained, but his flexibility and stamina impress me at all times.
The Hostias remains so beautiful, it seems beyond any attempt to mar its appeal. Pinza contributes his luxurious, deep tones in the Lux aeterna, in which the three lower voices collaborate. Here, the orchestra’s harmonic shifts, string tremolandi, and wind colors mix in a rarified atmosphere of spiritual awe and mystery. Though the Dies irae has one more spasm of cosmic fury, the music returns to a serenity it possessed at the first, the chorus and soli a cappella, hushed and rife with expectation. Soprano Fanelli breaks the stillness on several levels, and the chorus emerges in a weirdly angular double fugue, climaxing off the words dum veneris. Despite the various defects of selected singers and acoustical developments of the period, the heartfelt meaning of Verdi’s score has by turns assaulted and refreshed our senses, a powerful document that, in this Pristine incarnation, retains its affective might.