BBC Legends – Carlo Maria Giulini [Fauré & Verdi]

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Fauré
Requiem, Op.48
Verdi
Quattro pezzi sacri

Janet Baker (mezzo-soprano)
Gérard Souzay (baritone)

Philharmonia Chorus

Philharmonia Orchestra
Carlo Maria Giulini

Recorded on 30 April 1962 in the Royal Festival Hall, London


Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: November 2007
CD No: BBC LEGENDS
BBCL 4221-2
Duration: 79 minutes

 

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Beware the first listen! And take that “first impressions count” maxim with a pinch of salt.

When this BBC Legends Giulini release arrived I gave it a cursory courtesy listen and, for whatever reason, turned my nose up at its muddy sound and what seemed like a performance happening at the other end of a drainpipe. To be honest, I was rather reluctant to return to it, not wanting to write disparaging things, especially about a conductor for whom I have the utmost admiration.

But, listening again (this time, as it happens, on headphones), I was drawn into the performance and the problems of the recorded quality seemed to melt away. I compared the Fauré to Giulini’s later recording for DG (recorded in Watford Town Hall in March 1986, nearly a quarter-of-a-century later) and, while the sound quality is infinitely better, the performance, though raptly and suitably contemplative, is longer movement on movement (by eight seconds to over a minute) and more indulgent.

Suddenly I found myself overwhelmed by Giulini’s earlier performance. Of course he was a devout man and saw (or heard) music in religious terms. And his fervour is contagious, moulding his forces to the glory of music and God. As the booklet note indicates, chorus-master Wilhelm Pitz (presumably at Giulini’s request) split the chorus to stand in a random formation, not in serried ranks according to voice-type, thus ensuring a homogeneity of sound, which is perhaps detectable through the mono recording (this formation was not adopted in his 1980s’ studio re-make). Gérard Souzay is a suitably French baritone in the ‘Offertoire’ and ‘Libera me’, while Janet Baker – listed as a soprano (she was always though, to quote a vocal expert, a “mezzo with a good top”) – soars in the ‘Pie Jesu’; both soloists are more idiomatic than Giulini’s later pairing of Andreas Schmidt and Kathleen Battle.

The coupling on this disc is as it was on 30 April 1962 in the Royal Festival Hall – Verdi’s “Four Sacred Pieces”, with Baker. The larger choral forces (increased from the 70 singers used for the Fauré) overpower the microphones at times, but make a suitably devout partner to the contemporary Fauré (first composed in 1888 – Giulini uses the revision of course – the year that Verdi composed the first of his four pieces) – a connection not made in the notes, which concentrate on Giulini and Pitz’s work with the chorus. Somewhat different in its musical approach to religious texts – Verdi ever the dramaturge to Fauré’s spiritualist – Giulini’s interpretation was, eight months later, taken into the EMI recording studio (and he returned to the work again late in life with Berlin forces).

While not claiming that either of these performances is a benchmark, I am delighted to applaud re-mastering engineer Tony Faulkner’s surmounting of what presumably were enormous problems to unearth these performances from a difficult source and, through his painstaking work, allowing Giulini’s conceptions to sound again. This issue might still just be for Giulini, Baker and Souzay aficionados, but I am glad to have heard it, heard it more than once, and will do so again.

As it happens the concert was given on my first birthday (not that I knew it at the time!). 45 (and a bit) years later, it has come as something of a belated birthday present. For which, Carlo Maria Giulini and BBC Legends, many thanks.

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