Verdi: Messa di Requiem

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COMPOSERS: Verdi
LABELS: EMI
WORKS: Messa di Requiem
PERFORMER: Anja Harteros (soprano), Sonia Ganassi (mezzo-soprano), Rolando Villazón (tenor), René Pape (bass); Accademia Di Santa Cecilia Chorus & Orchestra/Antonio Pappano
CATALOGUE NO: EMI 698 9362

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Verdi’s Requiem has become one of the most beloved and most frequently performed large-scale choral works in the repertory, with many recordings – both studio and live – to match its popularity. In its musical difficulties and sonic complexity, it provides a major challenge to performers and sound engineers alike.

Four soloists are required, each capable of the kind of varied but grandly conceived singing also encountered in the composer’s biggest operas. The choral writing, too, is immensely diverse, requiring weight and delicacy, the widest possible degree of dynamic shadings, and fleet, neat singing as well as bold and brazen attack. 

Over the years, a number of recordings have stood out for managing to supply most, if not all, of these requirements to an unusual level. To choose some high-flyers, Toscanini’s 1951 Carnegie Hall set is hampered most by its limited sound. Of relatively recent accounts, Valery Gergiev’s 2000 set has a line-up of three fine soloists let down by the contribution of tenor Andrea Bocelli, which just isn’t up to the rest.

In between there are leading contenders from Carlo Maria Giulini (1964) and Riccardo Muti (1979), that show that an Italian temperament and a detailed knowledge of the operatic style Verdi transfers so fluently and effectively to this religious work are no bad things. With his Italian background and wide operatic experience, Antonio Pappano would seem to be well placed to continue this royal line. And so it proves.

His version, recorded during concerts in Rome given in January this year, is also firmly founded on the comprehensively excellent contribution of the chorus of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia (ANSC), whose singing supplies the vigour but also the precision and sensitivity needed for this piece. The ANSC’s orchestra, too, offers an absolute certainty of definition.

Pappano’s conducting maintains a firm control of his forces, showing a sense of drama that includes an awareness of the importance of some crucial moments of silence. At the same time he gives nuanced attention to Verdi’s detailed markings and accents. Also vital to his success is an ability to artfully manage the changes in tempo and texture so that they make maximum impact yet without jarring – something Victor De Sabata also managed in his still underrated 1954 performance.   

Pappano’s soloists are evenly matched. Soprano Anja Harteros is beautifully controlled, while mezzo Sonia Ganassi supplies a properly Italianate lyric intensity. Given his more recent vocal problems, tenor Rolando Villazón displays here nothing worse than his regular fierce personal commitment to whatever he is singing, though with perhaps an occasional sense of too much pressure on the tone higher up. René Pape’s bass is large and sonorous, yet his performance retains an element of human vulnerability.

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The sound captures the work’s enormously broad sound picture, as well as a sense of almost infinite receding depth in its overall perspective. George Hall