Friday, May 11, 2018

I might have set the bar too high

Yesterday, in the first installment of Ten Days, Ten Verdi Requiems, I reported about luxuriating in an amazing DVD of Herbert von Karajan's 1967 filmed performance with a stellar cast and the chorus and orchestra of La Scala. I wondered whether I'd compare all of them to that one, and whether any other recording would measure up. Well, I'm here to tell you today's recording certainly didn't. And it was another von Karajan recording!

Wanting to find a recording I hadn't heard in a long time, if at all, I discovered one a friend had given me when he was moving and downsizing--a 1970 recording with Gundula Janowitz, Christa Ludwig, Carlo Bergonzi, and Ruggiero Raimondi, conducted by Herbert von Karajan, with the Vienna Philharmonic and Vienna's Chor der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde. I confess I had never listened to this recording. Although the experience of listening on a car stereo while driving to Dutchess County and back is very different from watching a DVD in one's own living room, I don't think that's the reason this recording didn't suit me. I simply didn't feel the same precision, the same sense of ensemble, the same passion in this recording I did in the La Scala recording. I can understand why this recording is not on a major label.

Christa Ludwig was the best thing about this recording. A very different singer from yesterday's mezzo, but a very good interpreter of this demanding role. A beautiful sound, which is always very important to me, and a sensitive dramatic interpretation. Although she was the soloist on this recording with the longest-standing career in 1970, she was the soloist with the freshest sounding voice. That speaks volumes. (I confess I have not shown the great Frau Ludwig enough love in this blog. I hope to rectify that situation while the dear lady is still with us.)

This may hurt some people I know, but I've never been a big fan of Gundula Janowitz. To me she always had the brittle sound, the fast vibrato, and the occasional sharp pitch of someone negotiating an uncomfortably high tessitura. This recording reinforced my opinions. I also wished for more a sense of legato, more warmth, more passion. Everything seemed studied. And I found myself in the curious situation of dreading the Libera me. Turns out I had good reason to. (In her defense, the recordings of her singing Beethoven and Strauss used to fill out the second CD were much more pleasing to the ear than her singing of the Verdi. But those pieces were all lower in tessitura.)

Carlo Bergonzi had also had a long career already in 1970, and among many moments of great sweetness and vocal beauty there were occasional moments when one heard his age. Like  the tenor soloist in yesterday's recording, Mr. Bergonzi had a light voice but performed a wide range of roles successfully. Some of his unfortunate moments in this recording--admittedly very few--reflect that lightness in vocal weight not negotiating dramatic singing requirements as one might wish.

Ruggiero Raimondi was the youngest of the lot, but had already accomplished great things by 1970.  He also confirmed the opinions I held of him--very blustery in parts of voice, but a good top and good musical instincts. In the crucial "Mors stupebit" passage, by which I confess I judge every bass who sings this role, he erred and strayed like a lost sheep, and his blustery upper middle/passaggio was more out of tune than any bass I can recall hearing. In the remainder of the work, his singing was mostly very pleasing and sensitive.

I recently opined that nearly every recording or performance I have enjoyed of the Verdi Requiem has had one weak link--a miscast soloist, a chorus too small, a very badly chosen performance space (St. Thomas Fifth Avenue? Really?)--but in this case, the anomaly was the one strong link, Christa Ludwig. Again, my perception suffered from hearing it on a car stereo while driving at highway speeds, and likely from poor recording quality. I started out thinking I'd listen again when I got home. In the end, however, I didn't want to. I guess that says it all.

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