Published: January 2001
His name synonymous with opera, Verdi, to quote from Universal’s 2-CD Sampler, had ’an astonishing gift for melody, penetrating psychological insight and direct emotional appeal… ’.
Like Mozart, Verdi is revered for his stage works. Like Mozart, who arrived on 27 January (the one in 1756), so Verdi departed on the one occurring in 1901. This Saturday, then, it will be 100 years since Verdi’s death aged 87 – at 2.50pm in Milan’s Grand Hotel.
One wonders how many times Aida and La Traviata have been staged around the world; how many times a particular aria has found itself into a recital programme by a leading singer of the day?
In writing these few words on an almost exclusively operatic composer (leaving aside the Requiem Mass and Four Sacred Pieces, both choral, there is a only a single string quartet, some songs and a few insignificant piano pieces) I do find myself wondering why I, as someone who would put both opera and song as the final entry on a list of musical pursuits, should be writing something on ’Joe Green’.
Well, I think he’s underrated. A strange thing to say, perhaps, given Verdi’s huge popularity, but there are two aspects of his art that I believe falls, literally, on deaf ears. One is his use of the orchestra; the other is his ability, sometimes with one instrumental colour or one orchestral phrase, to encapsulate an opera’s plot or reveal a character’s disposition.
I’m sometimes left bewildered by the superficial response that Verdi’s music brings forth. Of course, Verdi’s ability as a tunesmith is recognised; so too – by one remove – there’s an appreciation of his catalogue of vocal ’showstoppers’, riches indeed for singers to wow their audiences with – not always though with musicianship a priority! But that, as they say, is another story.
Mention Verdi’s use of the orchestra, or the role of the conductor in a Verdian drama and, well, there’s no real chance of a discussion - for many people Verdi is the singer first, then the song. There’s no third aspect.
In my opinion, to really understand what Verdi is doing, to really appreciate his genius, you have to be as aware of what is happening in the orchestra (and responsive to the subtleties therein) as you are to the singer – and hopefully one not using the music as a ’vehicle’ but one who understands ’from the inside’ the character being portrayed. And how important a strong conductor is – someone who will lavish care on Verdi’s instrumental writing, bring out pertinent detail and cradle the rhythms (someone simply beating time to star-singing is anathema to me). That same, strong podium-force will bind the cast together and ensure there’s no vocal loose cannons.
What has long drawn me to Verdi’s operas is his ability to suggest so much with a single musical gesture. A particular orchestral colour, an instrumental phrase or a harmonic twist can immediately suggest an atmosphere, the storyline or underline and complement the character’s emotional state. Some of the plots Verdi dramatised may be daft, some of the characters may be of the ’cardboard’ variety, but Verdi’s orchestral brushstrokes and sheer humanity are omnipresent to elevate plot and character weaknesses – and present, to a greater or lesser extent, in Verdi’s earliest and middle-period operas (his self-termed ’galley years’).
Verdi’s ability to suggest and complement from within the orchestra may not be shared by all (Verdi was too musically shrewd for some I suppose); what is unarguable is that Verdi developed from a talented composer to a great one. His was not a God-given talent; he worked assiduously to the heights that would create Simon Boccanegra, Otello and Falstaff – things tending to come in threes, these are my nominations as Verdi’s greatest achievements. If I could have only one, it would be Otello, one of the supreme operas.
But I wouldn’t want to be without so much more – Macbeth, Luisa Miller, Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, Un ballo in maschera, Don Carlos … the list isn’t endless, but of the twenty-eight operas Verdi composed between 1839 (Oberto) to 1893 (Falstaff), I’ve rarely been disappointed; the trick, as Riccardo Chailly points out in his Classical Source interview with me, is to appreciate where Verdi was in his own development – it’s a long journey from Oberto to Falstaff. The talent was always there; how Verdi charts a course of increasing achievement is fascinating.
The 2-CD Sampler that Universal has issued offers 150 minutes of Verdi excerpts from across his sixty creative years. Taken from the rich catalogues of Decca, DG and Philips, conductors include Giulini, Karajan, Maazel, Carlos Kleiber and Solti; singers such as Domingo, Pavarotti and Carreras (The Three Tenors if you prefer), and Caballe, Tebaldi and Cotrubas on the distaff side, are among those who offer vocal finery. The CDs are very thoughtfully arranged in chronological order with something from each opera – from the Sinfonia (overture) to Oberto - a shapely and spirited rendition under Neville Marriner – to the brilliant closing fugue from Giulini’s 1982 Falstaff, every bar bearing the hallmark of genius conducting, this is, if you will, an A-Z of Verdi. As a final track, Solti conducts part one of Verdi’s Requiem – well, its composer did die one hundred years ago!
Universal is asking what amounts to a small handling-charge for its two CDs, which do require some persuading from the stiff card housing them, and you also get a handsome illustrated biography of Verdi, a guide to his operas and a complete catalogue of recordings – Universal’s naturally! As an introduction to the composer, this is excellent; as a two-and-a-half hour aural journey through his development as an opera composer, it’s both illuminating and a pleasure; as a book of storylines and general information, it’s useful and helpful.
Decca provides a new recording from another distinguished Verdian, Riccardo Chailly. This includes no fewer that five first recordings including the twenty-minute Messa Solenne. There’s some real discoveries here, not least the Haydnesque Messa, which pre-dates Oberto by a few years. (As Dino Rizzo, his critical editions of this music are used by Chailly, reminds in his liner notes, Verdi began and ended his career with sacred music – the Four Sacred Pieces came after Falstaff.) I like too the Qui Tollis, not least for its delightful clarinet obbligato. There’s some fine singing too – Kenneth Tarver (who always receives good notices it seems; his Tantum ergo in G explains why) and Cristina Gallardo-Domas (wonderfully intense in the dark Ave Maria and in the Libera me written for Rossini’s passing, which Verdi would then use, with quite a few alterations, to conclude his full setting of the Messa da Requiem).
The glory of this ’rare Verdi’ CD is the endless fund of melody and Verdi’s honesty, integrity and deftness of touch. There’s some splendid singing, the recording is excellent, and Chailly conducts with the utmost sympathy and understanding.
As an orchestral appendix – four-and-a-half hours of it – may I recommend Chandos’s 4-CD survey (selling for the price of 3) that contains everything Verdi wrote for the orchestra? Here are all the opera overtures (including one of the very greatest of its kind, The Force of Destiny) and all the ballet music, written to satisfy the convention of Verdi’s day (especially in Paris) of including an unrelated ballet during the opera itself. Included are such curiosities as the overture Verdi wrote, and then withdrew, for the Italian premiere of Aida (following its initial unveiling in Cairo). With excellent sound, splendid playing from the BBC Philharmonic and the conducting of Sir Edward Downes, one of the most experienced and perceptive Verdi interpreters around, this is a set full of good and lovely things. As Universal’s Sampler asserts: Viva Verdi

All the above CDs mentioned may be purchased at the classical source.

Sampler - Universal Classics 467 245-2 (2CDs with book)
Messa Solenne etc. conducted by Riccardo Chailly - DECCA 467 280-2
Complete Preludes, Overtures & Ballet Music conducted by Sir Edward Downes - CHANDOS CHAN 9787(4), four CDs for the price of three

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