Giuseppe Verdi – Requiem
Joan Sutherland, soprano; Marilyn Horne, mezzosoprano; Luciano Pavarotti, tenor; Martti Talvela, bass
Georg Solti, conductor
Decca, 1968 (1984)
This is one of the best recording of Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem, one of the few sacred works that the great Italian composer wrote during his long career and definitely the most important one, inspired to him by the death of another outstanding Italian, novelist and poet Alessandro Manzoni (passed away on May 22nd, 1873), who Verdi personally met and admired greatly.
This Requiem was recorded in the Sixties, conducted by Georg Solti in a state of grace and sung by four of the most important singers of the time. Perhaps the fact that the recording dates to 1967 (released in 1968) could be considered a weakness at first sight, but actually the sound is so rich that it is possible to hear and to appreciate every single detail, something that in this recording is more necessary than ever, especially for those who remember the comment soprano Joan Sutherland makes in her autobiography A Primadonna’s Progress about the «combined forces» of the soloists, conductor, chorus and orchestra which «made quite an impact, with sound and more sound reverberating around the Sofiensaal – it was hard to believe that one’s voice could be possibly be heard. But John Culshaw and the Decca crew performer their usual magic» – a magic that is still enjoyable after more than five decades.
The principal merit of this success must be ascribed to Georg Solti who, leading the wonderful Wiener Philharmoniker, acts as the unifier spirit of this fascinating work. Even though in Solti’s conduction there is plenty of thoughtful, relaxed passages where meditation and a feeling that seems submission to fate prevail (as in Lacrimosa or in Agnus Dei, just to mention two), it is in the most “sombre” passages of the score that Solti is really extraordinary. The booming, even angry Dies irae with its blaring orchestra is the most impressive – and not only because it is the most famous – piece for the manifestation of reaction and opposition, but Tuba mirum too is an ominous and grim piece.
Even in (relatively speaking) quieter passages as the sombre, pessimistic Lux aeterna, where the orchestra seems to object to Horne’s and Pavarotti’s acquiescence and sympathizes for Talvela’s gloominess, the listener clearly realizes the conductor’s straightforward vigour. A kind of hidden torment for mourning is always present in Solti’s conduction, a feeling that does not belong exclusively to the Wiener Philharmoniker, but to the Wiener Staatsopernchor too, with its thunderous and smooth voices that are not a secondary aspect for the success of the Requiem. Actually, the choral part is as fine and amazing as the soloists’.
The great soloists chosen for this recording appear here even greater thanks to the freshness and vigour of their vocal means, as all of them are in their prime (only Sutherland was a veteran of the stage at that time as Talvela made his debut in 1960, Pavarotti in 1961 and Horne in 1964).
A curiosity is that both Horne and Pavarotti remember in their autobiographies (My life and My Own Story respectively) that they sang Verdi’s Requiem on two different occasions in the same year of the recording of this disc (October 1967). Both performances were in memory of Arturo Toscanini: Horne sang with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of Toscanini’s birth, while Pavarotti sang under Herbert von Karajn’s baton at La Scala for the tenth anniversary of his passing.
Joan Sutherland brings to the Requiem the lightness and the suavity of the soprano coloratura that she actually is and the effect is astounding. She appears as the last hope before everything will be lost forever and this promise (an angelical promise, in contrast with the conductor’s “demonic spirit”, as in Libera me) gives a deeper meaning to her performance. Her diction is not clearer in Latin than it is in Italian or French, but perhaps the only moment when this is really a problem is her unaccompanied phrase «Libera me Domine de morte aeterna» at the beginning of Libera me, while elsewhere her incorrigible flaw is disguised (superbly, it must be added) by her virtuosity.
If Sutherland is unsurpassable for her melismas and for the luminosity with which she characterizes her part – in other words, for the “exterior” beauty of her singing – Marilyn Horne is equally mesmerizing for her inner inspiration. The mezzosoprano, the same who is able to be witty and exuberant as Isabella in L’italiana in Algeri or intrepid as Rinaldo in Handel’s homonymous opera, becomes in Verdi’s Requiem a thoughtful singer whose emotions are perfectly balanced, avoiding theatrical behaviour, something that gives to her performance the ideal character of what a commemoration should be, as it can be exemplified by her sublime invocation in Lux aeterna at the beginning of the homonymous piece. Horne’s interpretation is her second strong point after the sound technique that allows her to sing with softness, so that her legato is endless (hear Quid sum miser or the beginning of Lacrimosa).
Luciano Pavarotti’s contribution to the Requiem is of another kind yet. His rich, beautiful voice is the intermediary for emotion and compassion and a sort of youthful exuberance is not out of place to the rendition of these feelings. His Ingemisco is memorable, touching from the very first note and never forgetful to give meaning to the text.
Martti Talvela is the last great protagonist of the Requiem, where he carves out his place thanks to his elegant, velvety bass that sometimes is caressing and pitiful (as in Confutatis: «oro supplex et acclinis»), some other threatening (Lux aeterna) and is able to gives voice to a wide range of opposite and even incompatible feelings.
Nothing is out of place or wrong in this recording of Verdi’s Requiem and few others will be comparable to this one for its spectacular achievement.