Even conductors who seldom if ever conduct Verdi's operas take on the challenge of interpreting his setting of the Requiem Mass for the Dead. That means that there are literally hundreds of recordings of the piece – especially if you include live recordings – and any new addition to the catalogue really has to pull its weight. Whereas I felt that Sir Colin Davis' recently-released performance on LSO Live was good but not special enough really to deserve being put on record, Antonio Pappano's new version on EMI is absolutely splendid, and the performances of some of the movements easily rival the best of its predecessors.
Pappano's collaborators are his Orchestra e Coro dell'Academia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome, where he holds an orchestral appointment to complement his Music Directorship of Covent Garden. I was witness to the fruits of this relationship a couple of years ago, when he brought the orchestra to the Royal Albert Hall for a Prom concert that combined Berio's Sinfonia and Rossini's Stabat Mater. Sadly, the Berio seemed to have half-emptied the hall, but the blistering performance of the Rossini was easily the highlight of the season for me (as well as the finest rendition of that work I've heard). Here, conductor and orchestra had an approach that was both fiery and classical, exciting and precise, which made me curious that some of Pappano's ROH performances have been more interesting than exciting (the Ring, Traviata, Figaro and Peter Grimes notwithstanding).
And again, with this new Requiem disc, the orchestral playing is simply ravishing, far outstripping the reserved performances of Falstaff and Aida that Pappano gave early on in his Covent Garden reign. It also outdoes the Covent Garden concert of the piece that was given in March of this year, both in terms of thrills and imagination – and this in spite of the fact that the recording was made live in concert not two months earlier, in January 2009.
The ‘Requiem aeternum' is truly hushed and the ‘Kyrie eleison' has a classical calm that avoids the rushing that often occurs in other performances this movement, but what stands out is the absolutely magnificent approach to the ‘Dies irae'. I'm not sure I've heard it performed so satisfyingly. The challenge to a conductor and his orchestra here is the fact that the inclination to perform the first four chords quickly – to conjure up the onset of the Day of Judgement – often leads to an imprecision or a slowing down when the off-beats come in and we realise that the chords are on every two crotchet beats in a common-time bar. Pappano, however, manages to do both. His orchestra is so well-drilled that the drum player places the off-beats absolutely at the right points, yet the tempo is ambitious and thrilling. The brass playing for the introduction to the ‘Tuba mirum' is far more expressive than the average, managing somehow to maintain a beautiful tone while effecting a huge crescendo; and in the opening bars of the ‘Liber scriptus' the unity of the string playing, often bringing out an almost double-dotted feel when executing dotted rhythms (something that seems part of Pappano's overall ‘baroque/classical' approach). The ‘Rex tremendae' is marginally less effective, but that's easily forgiven when the rest of the Sequenza is so wonderfully played (and the return of the ‘Dies irae' at the end of the ‘Confutatis' is no less affecting).
I could go on all day about the orchestral playing – in fact, it's criminal not to have already mentioned the accuracy achieved in the spirited tempo for the ‘Sanctus' – but this is, after all, a sung Mass. To my ears, the orchestra's professional chorus is in every respect the equal of the orchestra. It's not just that they make a loud sound during the dramatic moments, but more importantly that they can match the orchestra's fast tempos in a way that's not often possible, for instance, with the largely amateur choirs associated with the London orchestras. And of course, the language presents fewer challenges to the Italian choir than it did to the conspicuously Anglophone LSO Chorus in the new LSO Live set). The chorus is also able to sing with a greater variety of colour than the average choir. That's clearly how Pappano has managed to create such dazzling and artistic results, in fact.
On paper, the soloists look to be four of the starriest choices on the circuit for these parts, but in fact only Anja Harteros is completely satisfying. She has the raw edge of a great Verdian, and yet has the music almost completely within her control; she has the right vocal timbre and the widest range of expression of the four singers, bringing the performance to an elating end with the ‘Libera me'. Rolando Villazón sings his part beautifully, especially the ‘Ingemisco', and there's a touching reverence about his approach; the only complaint is a slight lack of heft at the top.
Sonia Ganassi cannot be faulted in a technical sense, but she's still no Verdi mezzo. The gravel and ability toslice through the orchestra are lacking, and her singing is too controlled, too bel canto. That said, for me the big disappointment is René Pape. Although singing in the bass tessitura here, his voice has a lyrical, baritonal quality which is not to my taste for this music. It makes his singing unexciting, where a true bass can manipulate the listener during the ‘Mors stupebit' to far more effect.
Nonetheless, with Harteros, Pappano, and his orchestra and chorus on top form, this Verdi Requiem comes with an unqualified recommendation.
CD Review: The Verdi Requiem on LSO Live with Sir Colin Davis
CD Review: Semyon Bychkov's Verdi Requiem
Concert Review: Pappano conducts Verdi's Requiem at the ROH
Concert Review: Colin Davis conducts the Verdi Requiem live