Messa da Requiem
Angela Gheorghiu (soprano)
Daniela Barcellona (mezzo-soprano)
Roberto Alagna (tenor)
Julian Konstantinov (bass)
Swedish Radio Chorus
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Claudio Abbado
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: October 2001
CD No: EMI CDC 5 57168 2 (2 CDs)
Claudio Abbado’s recent serious illness has been no secret. He seems, God willing, not only to be recovering but continuing to work. All power to him. This Verdi Requiem was recorded live on two nights this year – January 25 and 27 – in Berlin’s Philharmonie. At this time, Abbado, so I am told, was alternating rehearsals with hospital visits; at the concerts, he looked “dreadful” – so said a friend from a friend at one of the concerts. To be conducting a requiem at the time of such personal crisis seems bizarre; perhaps though a unique consolation is encountered. I don’t want to labour this, but at the time of the concerts, it seemed touch and go if Abbado would survive; these concerts must have had an extraordinary tension to them.
A palpable ambience has been captured on these CDs. Indeed, the recording is superb, giving a natural overall balance and plenty of impact. The singers are not overly close, the chorus has more presence than is sometimes the case, and the orchestra is captured with immediacy.
The performance itself, even allowing that two nights could be chosen from, is never less than engrossing and often astonishing. It’s the heightened sense of concentration that grabs the listener, a wish by all the performers that these concerts should be something special. Abbado, as musician and man, appears to have inspired not only a deeply musical response but a human response too – “this is for you, Claudio”. The choral singing is wonderfully plaintive in the quieter sections; in the loudest the Spanish/Swedish choir offer declamation both fervid and unanimous.
Abbado persuades the Berlin Philharmonic, then ’his’, to some very Italianate phrasing and timbres. He leads a rendition both moving and thrilling; when things go into emotional overspill, one feels the dam is bursting. Yet this is not over-the-top Verdi: the climaxes are wrung from within. There is much intimacy and inner feeling; nobody is stealing the show. The solo singers are moved to be part of the whole, and Abbado never loses sight of the orchestra and how imaginative Verdi’s use of it is.
The sections of the extended ’Dies irae’ setting have rarely been so integrated – Abbado moves seamlessly from one to the next. In the ’Ingemisco’, he conjures a magical halo of sound; what a pity Alagna couldn’t have sung quieter. He does slightly stray outside of the ensemble frame; so too does Gheorghiu. Neither is quite on top form; Barcellona and Konstantinov might, on another day, be outclassed; on this occasion, they make a well-matched quartet, though their tendency to introduce a ’catch’ into phrases doesn’t appeal. They are though involved; try their heartfelt togetherness in the ’Offertorio’.
Under Abbado’s dedicated conducting there is a vibrancy, a reaching-out, which lifts this Requiem to a dimension of human expression at its greatest. He doesn’t rush through the ’Sanctus’, the brass is not crude and one can hear properly what the violins are doing between 1’37”- 2’02”. Barcellona’s launching of the ’Libera me’ could be more commanding and spine-tingling, though chorus and orchestra soon establish an expectant atmosphere. This plea for deliverance is deeply affecting; Abbado obtains crisp attack in the choral fugue and charts its passionate release with inevitability.
Such expressive urgency and contemplation travels well on CD and will again on further playing. This is a sensitive, dramatic Verdi Requiem, one that reveals Verdi’s sense of theatre, but is not overtly operatic. Above all, Abbado’s innate understanding penetrates to the core of Verdi’s setting in this incident-packed, emotional and eloquent performance.