The extensive discography of the Verdi Requiem provides stiff competition for any new entrants, yet they continue apace: in January, Sir Colin Davis will record his performances with the London Symphony Orchestra for LSO Live, and here's Semyon Bychkov with another live recording, from Profil, Edition Hänssler.
Bychkov has been Chief Conductor of the WDR Sinfonieorchester of Cologne since 1997 and this recording dates from November 2007, marking the tenth anniversary of the relationship.
The connection between conductor, orchestra and chorus is by far the strongest aspect of the performance. In spite of all those recordings on my shelves, I can't think of a more satisfying rendition of the 'Dies irae', even if it does have one or two equals. Bychkov seems instinctively to know how to achieve the most effective tempo for what can sound a deceptively easy movement but is in fact difficult to judge. The speed is on the fast side but not ridiculously so, hence the bass drum has its impact yet the strings can maintain an even sweep through the high, loud semiquavers.
The fugal passages of the work also come across extremely well for the same reason. Combining three choirs – the WDR Rundfunkchor, Cologne, NDR Chor, Hamburg and Choir of the Teatro Regio, Turin – makes a massive impact as might be expected, yet Bychkov manages to rein them all in and sustain precision. Thus the choral 'Libera me' is a demonstration of Verdi's emotional use of a scholastic form, all the lines working together and driving the music forth into the reappearance of the soloist. The 'Sanctus' is also exciting, the climactic full brass scale providing an excellent showcase for the German orchestra's players; in my experience, only John Eliot Gardiner's recording on period instruments matches this movement in vigour and clarity.
Nevertheless, I have reservations about the soloists, who seem a distinguished team on paper but do not uniformly live up to expectations. Ramon Vargas produces golden tone in the 'Hostias', rounds his phrases in the 'Salve me' with elegance and is always touching, but he sounds hard pushed above the stave (for instance in the 'Ingemisco'); I still prefer him in lighter, more classical repertoire (he was an excellent Tito at the Met, for instance). Ferruccio Furlanetto is a distinguished Verdian and delivers the 'Mors stupebit' with vivid meaning, but he has an excessive wobble both here and in the opening 'Kyrie'; the impact of his considerable instrument in the theatre is not done justice by the recording. Olga Borodina's vibrato is also slightly fast for my taste, and she sounds curiously disengaged compared to her normal vitality in performance; however, her tone at the bottom is wonderfully full and she follows Verdi's articulation markings with notable faithfulness. The strongest of the four is Violeta Urmana, who inevitably comes to the fore in the scena-like 'Libera me', which is dispatched with urgency and style. If the top C in the 'Salva me' is an effort and the 'Recordare' duet not the most beautiful I've heard, there is no doubt elsewhere that she has made the transition to the lyric soprano repertoire successfully; Verdi finds her at her best.
Nevertheless, it's the conductor who's the hero here; a childhood spent listening to La traviata has certainly paid off, and he conducts Don Carlo at Covent Garden next September. The orchestral and choral work is all of a high standard, and for the large-scale movements it's a recording well worth purchasing.