Giuseppe Verdi: Messa da Requiem
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (soprano), Christa Ludwig (mezzo), Nicolai Gedda (tenor), Nicolai Ghiaurov (bass)
Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra. . Conductor: Carlo Maria Giulini
Recorded in 1964. EMI CDS 7 47257 8
“Verdi’s Requiem” sounds like a contradiction in terms…..Verdi, composer of grandiose operas, full of emotion and drama – and a Requiem Mass, with its supplication for eternal rest? This apparent incompatibility has exercised commentators since the Mass’s first performance in 1874 – but audiences are in no doubt about the impact of this work, where all the emotions inherent in the form of the Requiem Mass are vividly displayed, on a large scale. Big orchestra, big chorus, big voices in the soloists, and 1½ hours of fine music. You have an unusual chance to hear this in live performance with the Petrobras Symphony Orchestra at the Teatro Municipal on 6th August.
Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi was born in La Parma, Italy in 1813, but he was no infant prodigy with a meteoric rise to fame. He began his studies in music at 11, and was actually refused entrance to the Milan Conservatory when he was 19! At 23 he married and was appointed Municipal Music Master of Busseto. In 1838, two years later, his first songs were published, but his first daughter died aged 1½. Next year his first opera was performed, but his son aged 1¼ died. The following year when he was 27 his wife also died of illness…… Success finally came two years later (1842), with his third opera, Nabucco. Then came years of hard graft, writing and directing many operas, not only in Italy but also in Paris and London. But his fame spread, many of his works became popular, some fanning the nationalist spirit that resisted the foreign occupation of Italy (chorusses from Nabucco and I Lombardi became the hymns of freedom fighters). Then came three major successes – the dark drama of Rigoletto (1851), the heroics of Il Trovatore (1853), and the grace and pathos of La Traviata (flop in ´53, big hit in 1854). In 1847 Verdi had begun living with Giuseppina Streponi, who had been a soprano soloist in the first Nabucco, and who was to become his faithful companion and support for the rest of her life. After La Traviata, Verdi’s new operas met with moderate success and many difficulties in production, such that after 1859 (when he finally married Giuseppina), he almost stopped composing, instead living at home and dabbling in politics. (Rome did not become the capital of a united nation-state until 1871). In 1869 at age 56 Verdi fell for Teresa Stolz, soprano soloist, a relationship which remained intense for more than 7 years. In 1872 Aida was a big success, and in 1874 came the first performance of the Requiem Mass, written in homage to Alessandro Manzoni, revered Italian man of letters. By 1877 Verdi was back with Giuseppina, and still wrote major works, including Otello (1887) and Falstaff (1893). Having dominated the Italian musical scene for more than 50 years, Verdi died in 1901.
His art was based on a fine sense of what the human voice could do, and he was able to bring energy and passion into his music. He loved a full-flavoured story for his libretto, wrote with exuberant conception, and strong dramatic feeling. If at the beginning his operas were separate songs strung together by the story, the mature Verdi shows greater skill in putting the arias into an overall context, without losing the wide range of expression and dramatic force that were his strengths. If we imagine the excitement and volubility of the Latin nature (in contrast to the coolness of the Anglo-Saxon) then you can appreciate more the apparently absurd exaggerations of Italian grand opera. This is about displaying emotions, on a large scale!
The Requiem Mass
So, applying these skills of Verdi’s to the words of the Requiem Mass, we have a most vivid portrayal of the emotion behind the words. Requiem aertenum – Grant them eternal rest, O Lord – at the beginning (and the end) are sung so quietly as to be scarcely audible. Kyrie eleison – Lord, have mercy on us – is an impassioned cry from the soloists but then put together with the chorus and orchestra. Dies irae – Day of wrath – is explosive, frightening, full of terror, with the trumpet calling to judgment in Tuba mirum. In Mors stupebit the bass stands amazed, while the mezzo prophesizes doom in Liber scriptus. Soprano, mezzo, and tenor are supplicating, despairing in Quid sum miser. You can imagine how is Rex tremendae majestasis, no? The next four parts are concerned with prayerful pleading and contrition, with a strong reminder of the perils of Dies irae before the Lacrymosa – a prayer for mercy.
The Offertorio – a prayer for deliverance from the pains of hell – is given to the quartet of soloists, and has some marvellously quiet high notes from the soprano. Sanctus – a song of praise – is written for double chorus, and sounds a bit like an afternoon band concert in the park….. necessary relief from the heavy emotions of the rest of the piece.
Agnus Dei – O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world – starts with the soprano and mezzo alone, an octave apart, before the choir comes in, also very quiet, just a line of melody. This simplicity is maintained to the end, together with the orchestra.
Lux aeterna is a prayer for everlasting light and rest, while the final part Libera me is so large-scale in its scope and changes, it could be a separate work by itself (and was actually written separately). It lasts for 13 minutes! If you have some emotional commitment still left, this is quite overwhelming. The soprano soloist alternates between quiet passages, and cries for deliverance, while the fury of Dies irae is brought back by the choir… after various alternations, the choir start a vigorous dramatic fugue, and then the voice of the soprano soars above it – Libera me! And at the end it is suddenly cut off to finish on a one-note phrase, repeated twice dying away.
The Philharmonia Chorus is a 100-strong amateur choir based in London; they maintain a very high standard of choral singing, and are much in demand for performances of major choral works. This particular recording is one of their hallmarks, recorded in 1964, and today still considered outstanding. The soloists too are impeccable, both singing separately, and in duos and quartets, where they blend beautifully together. (Not always the case for opera singers, by any means). Soloists, chorus and orchestra seem to be on a collective high of commitment and inspiration throughout the recording…….
And if you go to the Municipal in August, be prepared for a BIG work!