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POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 10
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Verdi: Messa da Requiem
EMI 7243 5 57168 2 8 (2 CDs). TT: 83:48
Angela Gheorghiu, soprano; Daniela Barcellona, mezzo-soprano; Roberto Alagna, tenor; Julian Konstantinov, bass; Swedish Radio Chorus; Eric Ericson Chamber Choir; Orféon Donostiarra; Berlin Philharmonic/Claudio Abbado

 

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Given the sheer a&r opportunism motivating this release—witness the solo lineup—it practically blunders into filling a major discographic gap, as Claudio Abbado's most consistent recording of the Requiem.

Eminent Verdian as he is, Abbado hasn't had good luck with the piece. His first of two attempts for DG (both deleted, though Amazon.com still lists the first) was apparently a late substitution at planned operatic sessions, which may account for the unfocused interpretation, playing, solo singing—even the recording, as if the engineers hadn't quite figured out where to put the microphones in La Scala. The DG digital remake should have been the recording of Abbado's lifetime. Orchestrally and chorally, it's stunning: the Vienna Philharmonic is in top form, warmly lyrical in the cantabiles, trim and buoyant elsewhere, recorded with luminous brilliance; the crisp, disciplined choral singing is perfectly balanced and blended. Unfortunately, poorly chosen, mismatched flavor-of-the-month soloists (Studer, Lipovšek, Carreras, Raimondi) let the side down badly. The post-leukemic Carreras is audibly taxed just to crank out the tenor lines—he makes it, but barely—while the bland Lipovšek leaves little impression in her extensive part.

Abbado's reading retains the tensile drama and purposeful shaping of the Vienna performance, though it's marred by unmarked ritards that sap the momentum. If his intentions are less completely realized than before, chalk it up to the Berlin Philharmonic, which responds well to his direction, but sounds unidiomatic in Verdi. That the late Herbert von Karajan's preference for soft-edged attacks and a homogenized sonority should remain part of this orchestra's style over a decade after his death is a testimony to his force of personality, but it means that Abbado's striving for taut drive and clarity goes rather against the players' own bent. The fanfares in the Dies Irae keep lagging behind the beat—quite apart from Abbado's own ill-advised ritards—and the trumpets' contribution to tuttis verges on the coarse and strident. Similarly, the chorus's sprightly attack on the Sanctus fugue is compromised by the oboe's woolly, rhythmically indistinct doubling. The choruses, by the way, manage neither the phenomenal unanimity nor the beautiful blend of the Vienna forces—tenors a bit raw here—but they sing with dramatic energy and musical understanding.

Abbado's more signal achievement is to draw from the would-be First Couple of Opera their best singing on record. (Granted, that's not setting the bar very high, but still...) The forward, almost brassy tone with which the normally mellow-voiced Roberto Alagna launches the Kyrie is a shock, but there is method to this madness. This clear, frontal placement, focusing the voice off the hard palate, allows the tenor to maintain an even line throughout the range, avoiding the awkward shifts which have sometimes left him sounding more like a gifted amateur than a trained professional. The Ingemisco doesn't exactly melt under this treatment—no threat to Bjoerling—but Alagna sings it musically and respectably. Even his contribution to the a cappella ensembles, which he dominates somewhat (though he's hardly the first!), is steady and controlled.

The improvement in Angela Gheorghiu—Mrs. Alagna to you—is even more striking. Her clumsy Kyrie doesn't bode well—though, in fairness, this phrase has defeated far more estimable singers than she. But she manages, under Abbado's guidance, to keep some clarity and bite as her high, bright instrument descends into the midrange, even mustering a passable chest mix for the Libera me. The voice remains a size or so too small for the music, but she maneuvers through it quite decently, blending pleasingly with the other soloists in the Quid sum miser and elsewhere.

The most technically accomplished of the soloists is Daniela Barcellona. Her firm, compact mezzo lacks traditional Italianate sweep, even as against Cossotto's relatively bright instrument, and she occasionally skimps on the legato ("quidquid latet apparebit"). Still, she projects the drama with clear, unwavering dignity and command, and I look forward to her further recorded outings. Julian Konstantinov is a solid, unmemorable bass.

EMI's engineering isn't the best, lacking the brilliance and clarity of DG's Vienna sound. The big climaxes are opaque, difficult to "hear through," while the trumpets suffer a touch of peaky stridency, but both these problems may be inherent in the actual playing.

Stephen Francis Vasta

 

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