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"Verdi’s greatest opera" is how many have described the Requiem and it’s easy to see why, as this is a score of truly epic proportions. Despite disclaiming any religious belief, Verdi wrote his Messa da Requiem to commemorate the first anniversary, in 1874, of the death of the Italian poet Alessandro Manzoni whom he valued and respected.
However, it began life as early as 1868, the year Rossini died. Verdi suggested that as a memorial tribute, several composers, himself included, should write a Messa per Rossini. They duly completed their tasks but the project was deemed a failure, apart from Verdi’s own setting of the Libera me, which became the seed from which the Messa da Requiem grew. The premiere took place in the Church of San Marco in Milan on May 22, 1874, with Verdi at the helm. He also conducted the first British performance at the Royal Albert Hall a year later.
The same venue was the setting for a 1963 recording with Carlo Maria Giulini directing an all-British contingent, powerfully conveying the drama and intensity of a live performance. Although the soloists might not have the status of other versions, the Philharmonia Chorus are in a class of their own, especially in the thunderous Dies Irae.
No less powerful is the first-ever recording made on period instruments, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. The thwacks of the bass drum are captured so vividly, as indeed is the rest of the orchestra. But Gardiner is also sensitive in the gentle, more reflective sections, as for example the very opening of the work. Giorgio Morandi on Naxos compares very favourably here, as he does in the Lacrymosa where soprano Elena Filipova is the pick of the internationally unknown soloists.
If a “known” cast is a top requirement then our two remaining contenders certainly fit the bill. Luciano Pavarotti forms part of Riccardo Muti’s starry outfit and his distinctive honey-toned timbre is there for all to enjoy, never more so than in the Ingemisco. Samuel Ramey also excels in this set, but the generally recessed vocal balance slightly mars an otherwise pleasurable listen.
In 2001, Muti’s compatriot Claudio Abbado taped a version of particular significance, as he was very ill during the live recording. In the Libera me, you’re drawn into the emotional weight and intensity of his interpretation, as the husband and wife team of Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna blend effectively with their colleagues.
All our contenders are worthy of space on your CD shelves, but the one that provides a musical experience like no other is Giulini’s live recording. It may be old but it will live on for many years to come.