In search of the best compact disc of Verdi's Requiem

Almost from the time it was written, Verdi's Requiem has been regarded more as opera than sacred work. And yet, in the four most recent recordings of the work (three new releases and a major reissue) none of the conductors - Herbert von Karajan, Riccardo Muti, Robert Shaw, and Carlo Maria Giulini - tries to argue an operatic viewpoint. Unfortunately, only two - Karajan and Giulini - really bring the work to life as an all-encompassing musical experience. Because Verdi was a man of the theater, his musical idiom can at times be theatrical; witness the terrifying drum blows in the ``Dies irae.'' It is this occasional theatricality that has been confused with operatic overemphasis. But when the soprano treats the demanding ``Libera me,'' which closes the work, as the outcry of a soul in torment looking for peace and salvation, the result is uncommonly moving and fully appropriate.

Needless to say, the choice of soprano is crucial for the impact of any performance of the Requiem. Furthermore, if there is a weak singer in the solo quartet, there is bound to be a commensurate diminution of cumulative effect, as two of the four recordings all too clearly demonstrate.

Riccardo Muti

It is surprising that Muti's second recording of what he considers his musical calling-card is so bland and faceless (EMI/Angel CDS 7 49390, digital, 2 CDs, 87:54 min.). It represents a retrograde step from his already less-than-ideal first (analog) recording of the work. This new performance, taped during two concerts of the work at La Scala, of which Muti is now artistic director, lacks the electric presence one usually associates with such an undertaking, in spite of the palpable fervor of the remarkable La Scala Opera Chorus.

The recorded sound is distant and unappealing. Of the soloists, only Samuel Ramey is in representative voice, and his is not the ideally rounded bass one wants to hear in this score. Pavarotti sounds tired; young American mezzo Dolora Zajic has some exciting moments but also has trouble sustaining a legato line. American soprano Cheryl Studer's monochrome, almost colorless soprano could hardly be less suited to this music. Muti seems content to be preoccupied with instruments, balances, and textual accuracy rather than finding heart or soul.

Robert Shaw

Even Muti's unsatisfying performance is several steps closer to effectiveness than that of Robert Shaw, whose leaden reading features an all-American cast and his own Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (Telarc CD-80152, digital, 2 CDs, 113:22 min.).I have generally found Telarc's Atlanta sound to be somewhat tubby, and here is no exception. The choral work is splendid, but it does not animate Shaw, who turns in his dullest recording to date. Bass Paul Plishka and mezzo-soprano Diane Curry offer solid contributions. Tenor Jerry Hadley is way beyond his vocal means in this music, and the voice sounds reedy, even bleaty. Soprano Susan Dunn sings the notes with little sense of style or meaning. To follow this devotional masterwork with five choruses from the composer's operas couldn't have been less appropriate, even had the selections been better than they were.

Herbert von Karajan

How encouraging, then, to turn to von Karajan's new account, with an impressive solo quartet, a superb chorus, and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon 415 091-2, digital, 2 CDs, 86:38 min.). The utter commitment to the music, the fascination with turning every musical indication to interpretive advantage, exploiting the forces at hand to make a compelling whole - these are but a part of what makes this performance so rewarding.

Of the soloists, bass-baritone Jos'e van Dam may lack the low notes, but he understands the piece and his contributions to it. Jos'e Carreras's tenor is, sadly, in ruins, but one can still sense what a handsome instrument it used to be. Mezzo Agnes Baltsa is a feisty, heartfelt communicator. And there is no soprano today I would rather hear in this music than Anna Tomowa-Sintow, and she is captured splendidly. This is, incidentally, the only cast wherein the soprano's and mezzo's voices blend into a distinctive new entity in their several moving duets.

Carlo Maria Guilini

The last recording is a CD reissue of the celebrated Giulini account taped in 1963 with the Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra and four illustrious soloists (EMI/Angel CDS 7 47257, analog, 2 CDs, 128:31 min.). It remains in a class all its own, despite certain flaws. These include soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf's quirky, often-fascinating, yet often terrible singing, and Christa Ludwig's cool, unidiomatic approach to the mezzo's music.

Upon remastering this performance for CD release, it was discovered that all the climaxes on the original master tape had been seriously distorted. EMI/Angel has included a disclaimer in the booklet, stating the performance's particular merit, and they are right: The distortion is distressing, but it cannot detract finally from a unique performance of vision and unerringly profound insight.

The men are magnificent - Nicolai Ghiaurov flooding forth his rich bass voice, and Nicolai Gedda giving one of his countless demonstrations of the art of tenor singing and the power of communicative musicianship.

The generous filler of this indispensable set is Giulini's equally riveting account of Verdi's ``Quattro Pezzi Sacri'' (``Four Sacred Pieces''), with Janet Baker as soloist.

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