Notes and Editorial Reviews
Helmuth Rilling, cond; Stuttgart RSO; Stuttgart Gächinger Kantorei; Luba Orgoná?ová (sop); Anke Vondung (mez); Alfred Kim (ten); Carlo Colombara (bs)
HÄNSSLER 98606 (2 CDs: 86:41
Text and Translation)
Why, I wonder, do so many recordings of Verdi’s Requiem arouse so much pre-release promise, only to fail to deliver on arrival? In
33:3, I reviewed two new releases of the Requiem,
both of live performances on DVD, one fairly recent, a 2008 account with Plácido Domingo conducting a barely competent cast of singers and players; the other, a 1990 Lorin Maazel-led affair commemorating the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, a performance I described as not just memorializing a disaster but
one. I looked forward at the end of the review to a new recording that was about to be released by EMI featuring Antonio Pappano, a team of fine singers, and the Santa Cecilia Academy, hoping Dear Leader would send it to me. Alas, he didn’t. It went instead to Henry Fogel who, reviewing it in the very next issue, 33:4, singled it out as the finest version to come down the pike since Giulini’s 1964 EMI set, Toscanini’s 1940 live performance with Milanov and Björling, and Serafin’s 1939 studio version with Caniglia, Stignani, Gigli, and Pinza.
That Fogel’s top choices comport in only one instance with mine—Guilini with Schwarzkopf, Di Stefano, Siepi, and La Scala Orchestra and Chorus—is evidence not of how crowded the field is with truly exceptional Requiems, but of how far back the truly exceptional ones go; for Fogel’s citations reinforce my observation in 33:3 that there have been only three or possibly four truly great Verdi Requiems committed to disc in the last 60 years.
Having acquired the new Pappano set on my own, I agree with Fogel, by the way, that as a performance it’s excellent. I do not agree with him, however, that “EMI provides very warm, full-bodied, and carefully balanced sound—sound that has impact, splendor, and clarity.” Rather, I tend to agree with a
review of the recording that calls the audio balance “claustrophobic.” For my money, EMI, which has recorded the Requiem more times than any other label, has never done the best job when it comes to audio engineering.
Speaking of recording the work multiple times, we have here in this new version from Hänssler Classic an unusual case of one release coming hot on the heels of another on the same label; for in 33:1, James Reel reviewed a live performance of the Requiem released by Hänssler as recently as 2009, thus entering the sweepstakes against itself in back-to-back releases. The earlier version, with Sylvain Cambreling conducting the SWR Symphony Orchestra of Baden-Baden and the Freiburg and Europa Chorakademie, was produced in SACD only. This slightly later version at hand comes only in standard CD format. Verdi’s Requiem is undoubtedly a work that can benefit from surround sound, but taking Reel at his word—I haven’t heard the Cambreling—it’s apparently necessary to crank up the volume to get the best impact and realism from the recording.
When I think of Helmuth Rilling, I don’t think of Verdi. More than half of Rilling’s nearly 250 catalog entries are of works by J. S. Bach and other members of the Bach dynasty. That doesn’t mean he hasn’t branched out into later repertoire. I’ve collected his excellent cycle of Haydn’s late Masses and recordings of works by Mozart, Schubert, and Mendelssohn. But how, I wondered, would he manage the massive forces of Verdi’s Requiem. The answer is magnificently. This is without question the best performed, the best recorded, and the most perfect recent version I’ve heard.
For starters, the Stuttgart Gächinger Kantorei is almost too good to be true. Even in Verdi’s most congested choral passages, the choristers’ diction is so clear and precise you can make out every word. But it’s not just their diction that amazes. Their unanimity of entrances and absolutely perfect pitch come close to making them sound almost as if they’re singing one to a part. Hänssler’s recording plays no small role in the proceedings. It provides far better than usual separation between channels and hence between sections of the choir, so that in
passages, some of which are quite chromatically tortured, the voice-leading can be heard with a clarity that resolves the harmony instead of making it sound, as it not infrequently does, like an exercise in early atonality. Try the “Te decet hymnus” early on in the Introitus to hear what I mean. Or for an example of the intricate interplay of complex and competing rhythms between choir and orchestra, listen to the Sanctus. I was able to hear details in the choral counterpoint I previously knew were there only from reading the score.
Have I heard a
more likely than this one to rouse the neighbors if not the dead? Probably. Gergiev’s bass drum on Philips can rattle your windows and give you a real punch in the gut. But Verdi’s Requiem—even the
—is about so much more than visceral thrills and theatricality. Rilling’s “Day of Wrath” packs plenty of wallop, but it projects something beyond a sonic boom, something I think Verdi intended, and that is a palpable sense of bearing witness to Divine retribution. You hear it in this performance not just in the blasting of the trumpets and blaring of the brass, but in the little quaking and trembling figures in the clarinets and bassoons. Just as there is spectacular clarity, separation, and delineation in the choral parts, so too do the smallest details in Verdi’s orchestral score emerge with stunning presence.
The vocal quartet is superb. As with the chorus, when singing together unaccompanied by the orchestra, their intonation doesn’t waver. It’s really quite remarkable, and such a pleasure, to listen to the unaccompanied mezzo, tenor, and bass sing the passage beginning with the words “Requiem aeternam” in the Lux aeterna (at 1:47 on track 3 of disc 2), and be able to hear which way Verdi’s chromatic voice-leading is heading. Others I’ve heard head straight into a non-tonal no-man’s land.
In my experience, perhaps no tenor will ever produce the hushed and honeyed Hostias managed by Jon Vickers in his recording (another on EMI) with Barbirolli, but Alfred Kim comes close for Rilling. For the soprano, the ultimate test is her extended solo against the
choir in the closing Libera me movement. Luba Orgoná?ová is phenomenal, floating her voice above the choir like an angel, and landing on her high note at the end with effortless grace and a tone of pure silver that hangs in the air with the resonance of a flute.
I’ve listened to lots of Verdi Requiems over the years (I’ve even had the experience of playing in a performance of it, and it’s damn hard), but rarely have I enjoyed the piece as much as I have with this new recording. If I have one small complaint, it’s that Hänssler has provided the entire Requiem with only seven tracks—three on disc 1 and four on disc 2. The entire Sequenz, for example—all 38 minutes of it—is contained in one band, so that if you wish to access the Lacrymosa, the only way to do so is by fast-forwarding all the way through track 2 on disc 1. No other recording of the Requiem I know provides so few access points. I doubt that it costs more to divide a disc into additional separate tracks. This was an unfortunate decision on Hänssler’s part.
Other than that, in my opinion, this will now be my modern Verdi Requiem of first choice. It’s a fantastic accomplishment.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Works on This Recording
Requiem Mass by Giuseppe Verdi
Alfred Kim (),
Anke Vondung (),
Carlo Colombara (),
Luba Orgonasova ()
Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart,
Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra
Written: 1874; Italy
Venue: Beethovensaal, Liederhalle Stuttgart
Length: 86 Minutes 0 Secs.
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