Verdi's Messa da Requiem is undoubtedly a religious work, significantly different from his operas, notably in terms of structure, texture, and style. Written to commemorate the death of the Italian patriot Alessandro Manzoni, the Requiem premièred at the Church of San Marco, Milan in 1874. Famously, Hans von Bülow called it an "opera in ecclesiastical dress," an unfortunate remark that he later retracted (probably due to Brahms's far more insightful retort). Bülow did lasting damage however, and the debate concerning the Requiem's operatic nature continues today despite the obvious fact that all religious musical works are theatrical. Of course, it's an understandable oversight; many "forget" the extent to which Catholicism relies on dramatic narrative to instill dogma. Surely it's not difficult, then, to recognize that Verdi elevated devotional music to its zenith: his take is simply the most entertaining.
The Requiem was Verdi's only new work to appear during the 1870s (save Aida in 1871) and most of the 1880s, and is stylistically characterized by musical language similar to both Don Carlos and Aida. But the work's use of counterpoint and lack of difference in vocal contrast separate it from Verdi's operas in a rather large way, despite the prevalence of mimetic gestures throughout.
Both Wagner's Parsifal and Mahler's mammoth Eighth Symphony preceded this performance, and the Mariinsky Opera Chorus was slightly tired in their execution of some of the work's more intense moments because of this grueling schedule. The chorus was expertly blended, however, and worked as an ensemble to articulate the contrapuntal textures very well, but once or twice the ending consonants were not sung together. The ensemble's sound was focused, round, and warm; qualities expected in one of the Mariinsky's size. Unfortunately, the orchestra overpowered the chorus at a few crucial moments.
The orchestra sounded fantastic, however, despite the schedule. The violin and cello sections, along with the winds in particular, deserve special mention for their sensitive treatment of the work's more intimate moments, especially the ending of the "Kyrie" and whole of the "Lacrymosa." Valery Gergiev was in his usual inspirational form, and once you get past his exhalations, his conducting is really quite spectacular. His interpretation is unusually fast, although in movements like the "Sanctus" this proved to be quite exhilarating. The speed didn't detract from the clarity Gergiev managed to elicit from his collected ensemble, however, a rare occurrence indeed.
Nevertheless, the four soloists did at times seem rushed. Viktoria Yastrebova, the soprano, rushed through the "Domine Jesu Christe," a movement that should be taken quite leisurely at first and then build to a slightly quicker tempo. Still, her legato was quite good even if her diction could improve slightly. One wished for her thick sound on the top C at the climax of the "Libera me," but alas was disappointed. Yastrebova worked with Olga Borodina extremely well, however, and the "Recordare" was breathtaking. Borodina herself gave a magnificent performance that showed us the range of a fantastic instrument in the hands of a true artist. Her use of dynamics in the sculpting of her phrases deserves special mention, as does her fantastic use of her secure lower range.
The key to singing the tenor part in Verdi's Requiem is finding a mix between tenacious boldness and incredible sensitivity, but Sergey Semishkur succeeded only at the former. His legato needs work; from the opening solo in the "Kyrie" (one of the best moments in the work if done properly) to his "Ingemisco," Semishkur struggled to sing anything without a certain force. Ildar Abdrazakov was truly exceptional throughout the performance, once again proving that Russian basses are really a different breed. His warm and robust sound floated over the orchestra effortlessly, and his commanding presence helped to communicate an inordinate amount of artistic gravitas.
As one of his only sacred works (there are four obscure others), Verdi's Requiem remains a unique achievement for its captivating depth, and despite a very intense performance schedule, Gergiev and the Mariinsky Opera managed not only to transport, but awe as well.
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