Notes and Editorial Reviews
Four days after Rossini died in 1868, the greatest of all Italian operatic composers, Giuseppe Verdi, wrote to Tito Ricordi, suggesting that "Italy's most eminent composers should write a Requiem Mass to be performed on the anniversary of his death." A committee was appointed, 13 composers were assigned to write one section each (Verdi was given the honor of writing the final portion), and the work was finished in time to be performed in November 1869. For a variety of organizational and political reasons, however, it was not performed at that time, nor indeed until 1988, under the baton of Helmuth Rilling, who leads this recording.
Verdi himself acknowledged that the resulting work would necessarily lack stylistic unity, and in fact he suggested that it should never be performed publicly except perhaps on anniversaries of Rossini's death "should posterity want to commemorate these." This recording was made in 1989, shortly after the premiere, but I have not encountered it before. It makes for fascinating listening, and it should be of interest to all who enjoy Italian vocal music of the mid 19th century. For those devoted to Verdi's Requiem this is self-recommending because of its role in the development of that masterpiece. The "Libera me" section that Verdi wrote here became, more or less, the same section in his later Requiem. He revised the earlier work somewhat (and, one might add, in the direction of greater dramatic tautness and focus); this is a wonderful opportunity to see how a genius's mind works in terms of developing his material.
What is shocking (and there is no other word for it) is to hear the opening of "Confutatis" composed by Raimondo Boucheron, an Italian church-musician not remembered strongly by history (nor were most of those who participated in this project). To say that Verdi "stole" Boucheron's dramatic opening might sound harsh, but after you've heard what Boucheron wrote you will certainly find it accurate. It is a shame that the notes (which give a thorough and helpful history of the piece but no musical analysis) do not go into this matter at all. Did Verdi ever acknowledge the origin of the dramatic opening of his "Confutatis"?
Although Boucheron takes his opening in a different direction from the one Verdi would choose, the former's "Confutatis," taken on its own, is one of the strongest movements in this Mass. It has power, beauty, and conviction. Other highlights include Antonio Cagnoni 's expansive "Quid sum miser," Lauro Rossi's lovely solo alto setting of "Agnus Dei," and Todule Mebellini's flowing and deeply felt "Lux aeterna," which presages Verdi's setting in its atmosphere. On the other hand, I find Pietro Platania's "Sanctus" ponderous in the extreme, and Antonio Buzzolla's opening "Requiem e Kyrie" sets the right mood but disappears from the memory as soon as the notes have faded. Some sections (Antonio Bazzini's dramatic "Dies irae," Gaetano Gaspari's "Domino Jesu," and Carlo Pedrotti's "Tuba mirum") maintain interest and stir the emotions, even while not achieving greatness. Verdi's "Libera me" is clearly the work of a genius, even here in its raw state before he later refined it.
Often, when obscure pieces like this are recorded, we have to make do with a barely adequate (or worse) performance. That is not the case here. Rilling conducts with both affection and urgency, and, while it is possible to imagine the benefit of a sharper rhythmic bite, this is clearly the work of a conductor who knows and loves the score, and can communicate that knowledge and that love to his forces. The chorus and orchestra perform with accuracy and commitment. Four of the five soloists are excellent singers with voices that are clearly important instruments; only tenor James Wagner is less than satisfactory. His monochromatic and somewhat whiny tenor is hard to listen to in solos, though he blends better in some ensemble numbers. Bena?ková-Cap positively glows throughout, and Haugland's finn basso provides high drama and a rich foundation to the solo singing. Quivar and Agache both sing with focused tone, warmth, and understanding of the music and the texts.
As I indicated, the booklet provides excellent historic notes, brief biographical notes of each composer, and a four-language translation. It lacks any musical analysis or commentary, and it also lacks the original Latin text (German, English, French, and Spanish are the four languages we are given). The recorded sound tends to get congested at big moments, and details are lost in a kind of acoustical haze. It also seems a bit weak in the low-frequency end. But it does have plenty of wannth, and it is certainly listenable.
It is doubtful that this work will receive a finer recorded performance in the near future. It is clearly not a masterpiece, but it is music that will provide pleasure as well as giving important insight into a historically important event in Western musical history.
-- Henry Fogel, FANFARE [11/2001]