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Sunday, August 20, 2006

Verdi: MESSA DA REQUIEM

I originally planned to write about Mozart’s Requiem in D, K626. But the DVD copy bought in Zuhai featuring the Wiener Philharmoniker (Vienna Philharmonic) under Georg Solti and the Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor, along with four other soloists lead by Cecilia Bartoli was a disappointment. Solti interpreted Mozart’s final masterpiece as if it were a slow waltz, which I found highly inappropriate. I thoroughly enjoyed his Mendelssohn symphonies with the Chicago Symphony but this time, I think he missed it entirely. A Requiem is a Mass for the Dead. As such, it is supposed to be highly dramatic, filled with heaven-and-hell scenarios, appeals for deliverance, visions of the torments of hell and the sufferings in purgatory, as well as eternal life after death. You can’t do that in a valse-like manner.

And so I decided to watch Giuseppi Verdi’s Messa da Requiem instead. Claudio Abaddo conducts the London Symphony and the Edinburgh Festival Chorus during the 1982 Edinburgh International Festival. Featured soloists were Margaret Price and Jessye Norman, sopranos; Jose Carreras, tenor; and Ruggero Raimondi, bass.

I compared this performance with my Quiapo copy of Herbert von Karajan’s later (1984) Vienna performance featuring the Wiener Philharmoniker, Chor der Nationaloper Sofia (Bulgaria), Ana Tomowa-Sintow, soprano; Agnes Baltsa, mezzo-soprano; José Carreras, tenor; and José van Dam, bass-baritone.

Verdi wrote his only full-length concert piece in 1874 as a memorial to the great Italian poet, Alessandro Manzoni who died in 1873. Along with Mozart’s work, this Requiem has secured itself as probably the most popular of its kind in the standard repertory.

The first movement slowly opens with delicate melancholy and child-like faith, imploring God to “grant eternal rest” (Requiem aeternam) upon the departed. The bass takes on a serious and understated tone, as the chorus whispers the words in pianissimo. The orchestra shimmers with the delicate “et lux perpetua luceat eis” (and let perpetual light shine upon them) as this slow, soft and timid movement builds up to the quartet of soloists’ entries, one by one, singing the solemn melodies, Christie Elieson (Christ have mercy).

The huge movement comprising Dies Irae (Day of Wrath and impending doom…) rushes out like a mighty flood: the vision of horror at the Last Judgment unleashes a violent storm of despair and fear; all orchestral and vocal forces combine to howl their chromatic passages with startling effect.

The mezzo solo “liber scriptus profeteur” (it is recorded in the books..) has an uncanny grandeur, a realization that God knows everything that we have ever done, while the chorus fearfully interjects the horrors of the Dies Irae, intensifying the general atmosphere of gloom.

The plea “Quid sum miser” sung by a trio (soprano, alto and tenor) humbly asks for salvation, some sort of a quiet interlude while the mood of gloom descends once again with the frightening “Rex tremendae maiestatis (King of tremendous majesty), which reminds one of God’s awesome powers, in no uncertain terms.

The following sections are quite, quite operatic in style: the expressive duet between soprano and mezzo in “recordare”, gains immensity through the tenor solo “ingemisco”, an acknowledgement of guilt of past sins, leading to the powerful bass aria “confutatis maledictus” (the wicked are confounded..) while the chorus reintroduces the cruel images of the Dies Irae. This long movement concludes with the great prayer by the quartet of voices, “Lacrymosa dies illa” (day of tears and mourning) where one is confronted with the inevitable: the Last Judgment.

The next movements are part of the standard sequences of the Catholic mass: the Offertorio, Sanctus and Agnus Dei.

The soloists take on the offertory with melancholic and solemn melodies that seem to obliterate the terrifying images of the Last Judgement, offering prayers as sacrifice to bring the faithful departed “into the light”. When the soprano’s voice floats above the rich harmonies of the orchestra, the chorus and the soloists, it really feels like a ray of light descended on the stage.

The Sanctus (Holy, Holy..Hosanna in the highest) is an impressive big double fugue for the chorus and ends in a majestic tone, as if it were a symphonic finale. It is after all, intended to glorify God’s name.

Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) is sung by soprano and mezzo in octaves, impressively unaccompanied, and repeated by the chorus pianissimo.

The trio of soloists (except the soprano) once again repeats the “Lux aeterna luceat eis” but in the most delicate colors: it fades gradually into the shimmering twilight.

Which leads to the grand finale, as the soprano and chorus intone “Libera me, Domine…” (Deliver me, O Lord from everlasting death, when the earth and the heavens are moved…when you shall judge the earth by fire…). The chorus recreates the horrors of the Dies Irae, as the peace of salvation appears in a magical a capella with the soprano voice floating above the chorus, leading to a powerful double fugue by the chorus. The soprano sings a confident Libera me once again in a psalmodic whisper kind of way, which dissolves into a barely audible pianissimo, as the pleading remains, and dies away to nothing.

Both performances by Edinburgh and Vienna are impressive, although I liked Vienna’s better. All acoustic considerations were given attention: a trumpet section is placed above in the balcony, to convey a sound that originates from far away, like the heavens, which is also the case for the soloists.

As for the soloists, Carreras is magnificent in both productions, his beautiful legato line and phrasing remains crystal clear, and he enunciates quite clearly. As for the sopranos, Margaret Price has a delicate, light and airy voice, very bel cantoish, she manages the trill in the Offertorio section very clearly, while Anna Tomowa-Sintow’s is heavier, rounder and highly dramatic, which makes her rendition very moving. The basses are equally impressive, although I thought Raimondi’s was a bit lighter and lacked volume. The crucial part of the mezzo voices were performed by Jessyne Norman and Agnes Baltsa. Norman is among the best sopranos in the world, with a rich, warm and heavy voice. She also has a wide vocal range, which is probably the reason why she undertook a role meant for the mezzo. In this case, however, Baltsa is the better voice, hands down. She is after all, a trained mezzo soprano, and in the duet in octaves, Balsta’s voice remained rich and round, confident and assured even in the very low notes, while Norman’s lost some of the roundness and the textures while navigating the lower register.

Both choruses were impressive although I felt Edinburgh’s was less reverential and solemn and more performance hall-inclined. The orchestras were both good, although I felt Vienna’s was more expressive and solemn.

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