Messa da Requiem
Elena Filipova (soprano)
Reinhild Runkel (mezzo-soprano)
Peter Dvorsky (tenor)
Kurt Rydl (bass)
Munich Philharmonic Choir
Munich Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded live on 27 & 30 November 1993 – Philharmonie im Gasteig, Munich
Reviewed by: Timothy Ball
Reviewed: August 2005
CD No: EMI 5578482 (2 CDs)
Duration: 1 hour 44 minutes
As ever with Sergiu Celibidache, a seemingly well-known work is revealed in a new light.
What this performance does not do is to confirm Hans von Bülow’s clichéd statement (and consequent variants) that the Requiem is “Verdi’s latest opera – in ecclesiastical garments”. On the contrary, Verdi’s is a reverential approach to what is, after all, a sacred text originally intended for liturgical usage. Although the first performance of the “Messa da Requiem” was in a church, it was not, nor was it conceived to be, integral to an act of worship.
It may seem odd, then, that Celibidache should highlight thereverential, rather than the histrionic, aspects of this work, thoughno-one could complain of a lack of drama in the ‘Dies Irae’ or other comparable passages. Indeed, they have all the weight and power one could wish for, without descending into melodrama or hysteria.
The opening ‘Requiem aeternam’ is solemn, the chorus’s utterances prayerful. Most striking in this movement is the a cappella ‘Te decet hymnus’ which Celibidache clearly views as hearkening back to polyphonic writing of the Italian Renaissance, the lines delivered and sculpted with greatcare. Other unaccompanied passages throughout the work are given similar thoughtful treatment.
As already indicated, the ‘Dies Irae’ does not simply become an occasion for choral shouting and loud orchestral playing. Verdi’s music emerges here with great clarity – a refreshing change from some performances. Unfortunately, the ‘off-stage’ trumpets do not really emerge at all, thus detracting from some of the impact of the ‘Tuba mirum’. This may be a balance or recording deficiency, but whatever the cause, this is the only passage that disappoints to any degree.
In any case, the ‘Rex tremendae’ which follows shortly thereafter is stunningly well realised, with precise rhythmic articulation and an attack which realises the import of the words.
The big paragraphs of this lengthy ‘Dies Irae’ movement – there are nine in total, all accessible by separate tracks – have an uncommon integrity, whether in passages for the chorus or soloists alone or together. The concluding ‘Lacrimosa’ is extraordinarily moving, with a sense of communal mourning.
Having dominated the first two movements, the chorus is silent for the ‘Offertorio’, and we might admire here the admirable way in which the conductor has encouraged his soloists to work as a team, rather than individually vying for our attention. The ‘give and take’ of lines, allied to scrupulous attention to Verdi’s indications and phrasing, ensure the spirit of the music is conveyed with compelling conviction.
Eyebrows might be raised at the steady tempo for the ‘Sanctus’, though this does enable much of the orchestral detail to emerge which otherwise goes for nothing when the movement is played as fast as possible, rather than at Verdi’s ‘Allegro’. There are some lovely quiet moments, too, with the antiphonal “pleni sunt coeli” supported by gentle staccato strings.
Intonation is commendably secure in the unisons of the ‘Agnus Dei’, soprano and mezzo soloists are as one and, again, space and time allow felicities of scoring to come through.
Soloists again – as does the orchestra – provide sombre colours for the ‘Lux aeterna’, the string tremolos and timpani rolls quivering with tension.
Celibidache’s whole reading seems to be moving towards an ultimate climax in the final ‘Libera me’. The ‘drama’ of the text – and its musical realisation – is underlined without exaggeration, and the various sections of the movement have a rare cohesion, culminating in an authoritative delivery of the fugue. Here, and consistently, the chorus is superb. Highly responsive to the demands placed upon it by the conductor and equally secure in both quiet and loud passages.
Elena Filipova – a name unfamiliar to me, I must admit – is an excellent exponent of this music. I gather she has also recorded the Requiem for Naxos. In the ‘Libera me’, she is an anxious supplicant rather than an agitated Aida, and elsewhere her firmness of line is a distinct asset in providing cohesion to the soloists’ collective contributions. She has power a-plenty, too, able to soar up to a magnificent top C in the ‘salva me’.
Her colleagues make equally distinctive impressions – Reinhild Runkel’s dusky timbre is well suited to the ‘Liber scriptus’ and other oracular passages. She can be tender, too, and blends well in ensemble. Kurt Rydl provides solidity of tone, and his firm delivery of the bass’s lines is all the more effective for the absence of overstatement. Peter Dvorsky is the only singer who adopts what might be termed an ‘Italiante’ approach in places, with momentary suggestions of a sob or two. In his big solos, his ingratiating tone is pleasing, though I suspect he is less comfortable with Celibidache’s approach than are his colleagues.
But the plaudits for this performance must rest with the conductor,whose distinctive view of this score is surely this release’s raison d’être.
Verdi’s Requiem is uncommonly well served on disc, but however many versions you may have, I would urge you to sample Celibidache’s special vision, as there is not a whiff of familiarity in this considered and profoundly interesting reading.