Friday, May 11, 2018

Tremens.....factus....sum ego.....

A Facebook friend accepted a Ten Days, Ten Albums challenge, discussing ten albums that were life changing. His first was a recording of the Verdi Requiem, which, judging by the personnel involved, must be amazing. I'm creating my own challenge--Ten Days, Ten Verdi Requiems. Surely I have that many recordings! If I don't, then I can revisit memorable performances I've seen. Word of warning--I might not complete all of this challenge in ten successive days. I can only listen to one recording per day in order not to cloud my already muddled brain. There's only so much wailing and gnashing of teeth at the gates of Hell one can take, you know? (Actually, I'm talking about my day-to-day life--I should listen to non-stop Verdi, come to think of it!)

What better way to start out than with this gem, a DVD of a 1967 film with Herbert von Karajan, Leontyne Price, Fiorenza Cossotto, Luciano Pavarotti, and Nicolai Ghiaurov, with the perfectly wonderful orchestra and chorus of the Teatro alla Scala? To say this was electrifying would be pointless, especially since the sticker on the front of the package says it for me, quoting a Gramophone review.

Of course I was drawn in from the beginning. It was magical. 100% commitment from everyone on stage, including the chorus. I hate when YouTube commenters make insipid guesses about what the composer or the performer must have been feeling, but I imagine everyone on stage having studied both classical and church Latin since childhood and knowing every single word of this piece. Not a one of them was glued to a score, and their performance musically precise, vocally lush, and full of passion and subtlety.

The first half of the Requiem was stunning, of course, but from the Offertorio on I was on the edge of my seat. (Side note: Why do they so often have a break between the Lacrymosa and the Offertorio in live performances? What, you're fighting eternal damnation, but you need to check your makeup and call the sitter?) When the sublime closing of the Offertorio was broken by the wall of sound that is the Sanctus, I couldn't help but to cry out! OK, just to cry. The Agnus Dei was ethereal, and the Libera me was a monumental tempest of conflicting emotions only Verdi could write. The older I get, the more I understand those who have called the Requiem Verdi's most operatic work.

The soloists. Incomparable! First, this was Leontyne at her prime.  I've always said her best singing was in the 1960s. Here we had that beautiful, dark, rich sound and that thrilling pianissimo that we love, but the smoky timbre that crept in later had not yet come, and although we had a few hints of swooping, it was tastefully done. (I know it's sacrilege to speak of Miss Price in any terms other than glowing, but there is a reason the 60s were her best decade. Although the 70s and 80s were damn good by comparison to anyone else!) I can only single out a few moments: "Fac eas de morte transire at vitam" was heavenly, and I thought the sustained B-flat at the end of the "Requiem eternam" section in the Libera me would last forever. I hoped it would. Miss Price uttered the words "Tremens factus sum ego" with a desperation that clearly showed what was at stake. 

Luciano Pavarotti was the new kid on the block in this cast. He was young, when his voice was amazingly fresh, but he hadn't yet learned the subtlety as his colleagues had. Luckily, Maestro von Karajan was there to lead him. From his first powerful entrance with "Kyrie eleison" to the beautiful Ingemisco to his part in the Lux aeterna trio, Pavarotti's sunny voice is the most optimistic thing about this performance, the thing that makes us think we might not be damned after all. 

The mezzo soloist should part our hair with the opening of Liber scriptus and make us feel transported with the opening of Lux aeterna. Fiorenza Cossotto did not disappoint. As if such a thing were possible! Already at her prime in 1967, she displayed power and tenderness and the unique vocal timbre we associate only with her. Nicolai Ghiaurov, also at his prime in 1967, was all power and expressive passion. His Confutatis was a wonder. It pains me to report, however, that a few moments in the "Mors stupebit" section were not exactly as one would wish, although he did end the section in the same key as the orchestra, which always surprises me in any performance.

This recording is available on audio and video. I am happy to own the DVD, and have watched it many times. I shall continue to do so. And I shall continue to recommend this recording to you.

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