Giuseppe Verdi is one who should need no introduction. However, not as many people as should know that in addition to writing many, possibly even most of the most popular operas in the repertoire, he also wrote a stunning requiem mass.
Verdi’s first idea for a requiem came in 1868 on the death of Gioacchino Rossini, whom Verdi had admired greatly. He proposed that a number of Italian composers collaborate on a Requiem in his honor and contributed a “Libera me“. As is the habit of such things, the proposed Rossini tribute never came to be, but Verdi used the “Libera me” as the seed of his own Messa da Requiem in memory of the writer Alessandro Manzoni. (The full title is Messa da Requiem per l’ anniversario della morte di Manzoni 22 maggio 1874. Just so you know.)
Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs, in his notes on the work, spends great energy in defending the Requiem against charges of being “operatic,” which was taken in the nineteenth century to mean that the Requiem was shallow and theatrical. (It’s highly entertaining to follow the arguments in Cohrs’ notes; they seem to devolve into German versus Italian musical taste and criticism.) Given my own thoughts on the complex and constantly shifting relationship between worship, ritual, and theater, I’m not going to take “operatic” as an insult (although it may reveal some shallowness in the critics). Sacred music, at least in the West, has always relied on an element of drama for its impact (as does, in point of fact, church ritual itself: Christianity is a mystery religion, and an essential component of any religious mystery is drama, which we may take to mean the kind of wonder and awe that reach right into our psyches). And please don’t forget the origins of our traditions of the theater, in the Festival of Dionysos: Greek drama was, when all is said and done, an offering to the god. I don’t find it in the least reprehensible that Verdi, who was a dramatist at his core, engaged the full range of his talents when composing this work.
Consider that the Requiem makes use of dramatic themes, voices carried to the full range of their potential, and choral passages that sometimes could quite easily fit into Rigoletto or Aida (give or take the Egyptian setting). The no-holds-barred “Dies irae” (which is where everybody cuts loose, although I still have to give pride of place to Hector Berlioz, whose “Dies irae” has the capability of causing the unprepared to wet themselves) is loud, highly colored, and the slowly rising crescendo of the brass going into the “Tuba mirum,” with the chorus in full voice, is theater at its best. It sets a pattern for the entire mass, in terms of contrast, emphasis, lyricism, and drama.
If you’ve been following our explorations of classical music, you know already that I have immense respect for Nikolaus Harnoncourt as an interpreter. I won’t say that he can do no wrong, but I haven’t caught him at it yet. The Verdi Requiem is somewhat of a departure for Harnoncourt, who is best known for his renderings of earlier music. This reading is based on a new critical edition by David Rosen of the facsimile autograph score published by the Italian publishers Ricordi in 1941, and Harnoncourt has made good use of this resource.
The soloists are superb, projecting a full range of moods from deep reverence to wonderstruck awe. Their ensemble work is flawless and their solos compelling. Eva Mei, soprano, and Bernarda Fink, mezzo-soprano, in particular, turn in a performance in the “Lachrymosa” that bypasses all your defenses. Nor can I find any arguments with tenor Michael Schade or bass Ildebrando D’Arcangelo. Both perform with power and finesse.
(Sony BMG Music Entertainment, 2005)