Verdi was deeply by the death of the novelist Alessandro Manzoni in 1873. He revered Manzoni more than any of his contemporaries, and was spurred by his death to write a complete Requiem, though one which differs in several ways from the text of the Catholic Requiem Mass.
He retained the Libera me from his first effort, though with considerable alterations, and finished the whole work in April 1874. Its first performance was in the inconspicuous church of San Marco in Milan.
Verdi conducted, and then took the work on tour to various European cities, where he usually conducted it in concert halls – including the Albert Hall in London – rather than churches. It still remains primarily a work for the concert stage.
From the start, the Requiem has divided opinion, with Wagner’s right-hand man Hans von Bülow referring to it as ‘Verdi’s latest opera, though in ecclesiastical robes’, to which Brahms replied ‘Bülow has made a fool of himself. Only a genius could have written such a work’. Bülow soon handsomely repented.
Verdi’s reputation has undergone many rises and falls since the 1870s, but the Requiem has never been out of favour, and continues to be one of the most popular of religious works. That doesn’t stop the eternal debate about whether it is a theatrical rather than a religious work.
Such a debate is futile because there is no reason why a theatrical work shouldn’t also be religious, or vice-versa: JS Bach’s Passions are religious works with a strong, even violentdramatic/theatrical element and force.
One might say, in a hopeless attempt to bring the dispute about Verdi’s Requiem to a close, that it is the converse of Bach’s masterpieces: a theatrical work which is also religious.
The best recording…
Claudio Abbado (conductor)
Angela Gheorghiu (soprano), Daniela Barcellona (mezzo), Roberto Alagna (tenor), Julian Konstantinov (bass); Swedish Radio Chorus, Eric Ericson Chamber Choir/Berlin Philharmonic
EMI Classics 492 6949 (2001)
At the end of January 2001 there were performances of Verdi’s Requiem all over the world, to commemorate the centenary of the composer’s death. Several were recorded and, not surprisingly, they have an unusual intensity.
Perhaps the most powerful of all were the two performances given in Berlin’s Philharmonie under conductor Claudio Abbado, with the sombre grandeur of the Berlin Philharmonic at his disposal, three crack choirs, and soloists who, though famous, were not so familiar with the work as to impose their own ideas on it.
Available on both DVD/Bluray and CD, it depends on whether you want to see it as well as listening to it. I prefer to see it for a reason that some may find questionable, but which seems to me under the circumstances entirely appropriate: Abbado had recently had an operation for cancer, and is clearly fragile, as he was to remain until his death.
The sight of his gestures, both graceful and desperate, seems legitimately to add to the overwhelming effect of his deep understanding of and passion for this great work, and the soloists are on top form.
In no other performance that I have seen or heard has the comparison with Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel seemed more appropriate, both in the quality and the quantity of fear
and awe that it evokes. Soprano Angela Gheorghiu sings the extremely difficult Libera me exquisitely, and murmurs the last words of the Requiem with appropriate terror.
The mezzo Daniela Barcellona, who has the lion’s share of the Dies irae, is on sumptuous form, with the Lacrymosa perfectly rounding off the complex emotions of the vast sequence.
Tenor Roberto Alagna manages to find the right, but different, tones for his two wonderful solos, ‘Ingemisco’ and ‘Hostias’, and bass Julian Konstantinov, sounds menacing but avoids melodrama. But it is the sight of Abbado, exhausted and shattered by the piece he has just so marvellously controlled, that makes the final, devastating impression.
There is, appropriately, a huge silence, a hush, when the music ends, and then of course the usual bowings and smilings: turn it off before they begin.
Three other great recordings…
Riccardo Muti (conductor)
Warner Classics 098 0202
Riccardo Muti may have conducted the Requiem more often than anyone, with widely varying results. This first recording, from 1979, has a matchless team of soloists, and is in Muti’s most fiery manner.
What impresses most is the end of the work, where – with no authorisation from the score – he slows up for the final desperate shrieks of the chorus and soprano, giving the impression that we are hurtling down a vast tube to destruction.
It makes soprano Renata Scotto’s final desperate plea to be delivered from eternal death all the more moving, and concludes what may not be the most comprehensive account, but possibly the most thrilling.
Arturo Toscanini (conductor)
Music and Arts MACD1269
It would be absurd to give a list of great performances of the Requiem without including its greatest exponent. There are quite a few recordings of Toscanini conducting the work, all live, but the finest is from new York’s Carnegie Hall in 1940.
The sound is primitive but also undistorted, and the performance is so great that one feels sorry for anyone who can’t enjoy it.
Toscanini ensures a performance that is always incandescent, and – importantly – he has Jussi Björling as the sublime tenor soloist.
Yuri Temirkanov (conductor)
C Major 728602
It is interesting and moving to see and hear Verdi’s Requiem performed on home ground. Recorded in 2011, the Chorus and Orchestra of the Teatro Regio di Parma, in the lovely eponymous opera house, really do sound authentic.
Yuri Temirkanov conducts a broad but tense account, and the soloists contrive to sing as part of the collaborative effort, rather than as stars, though two of them – mezzo Sonia Ganassi and tenor Francesco Meli – are certainly that.
Original text by Michael Tanner