Friday, April 11, 2014

Montage # 151 – Verdi: Messa da Requiem

As of  May 9, 2014, this montage will no longer be available on Pod-O-Matic. It can be heard or downloaded from the Internet Archive at the following address:


The second in our « one work montage » series is a performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem. A few words about the work, and the performance I am sharing with you this week.

It is true that Verdi is best known for his operas, but if you look at his entire catalog of compositions, there are some non-operatic gems: the string quartet in E Minor, several songs and choral works only to name those. Verdi’s Requiem is the composer’s only large-scale work not written for the stage, and it marked a transitory point in Verdi’s life—from the heyday of one wildly successful opera after another into the relatively quiet, twilight years of his older age.

While Verdi officially began working on his Requiem in 1873, a small portion of it had already been composed back in 1868. Operatic great Gioacchino Rossini had just passed away and Verdi took it upon himself to commission a collaborative requiem to honor the composer’s memory. He began the process by providing a Libera me (Deliver me) to the effort. A year later, the Messa per Rossini was complete, with thirteen composers having contributed their work, squabbling and backstabbing all the while. Despite the fact that the composers’ lack of camaraderie meant the piece was ultimately poorly put together, the premier performance was slated for the one year anniversary of Rossini’s death. For one reason or another, for better or for worse, the premiere was canceled and the piece was all but forgotten. More than one hundred years later, in 1988, the Messa per Rossini finally got its moment in the spotlight. Of the thirteen contributing composers, the only familiar name on the program was Verdi’s.

Disappointed with the fate of the mass for Rossini, Verdi kept returning to his Libera me, convinced that it could be put to good use somehow. It took the death of another Italian artistic fixture in 1873 - noted poet, nationalist novelist, and personal hero of Verdi’s, Alessandro Manzoni for him to cast the Libera Me into a new work, which we now know as his Missa da Requiem.

Working diligently, by May of 1874—the first anniversary of Manzoni’s death—the Verdi Requiem was complete and ready to premiere. The piece was debuted most reverently on May 22, 1874 in the cathedral of Saint Mark in Milan, and later at La Scala. . The Verdi Requiem met with continued success on a long, European tour, with one of the pinnacle performances taking place in Albert Hall, exactly one year after the premier of the piece. For this concert, Verdi himself led a chorus of over a thousand and a one hundred forty piece orchestra.

There are few notable differences between the layout of Verdi’s Requiem and that of the typical requiem mass. It consists of the Introit & Kyrie, the ten-part Dies irae (“Day of Wrath”) sequence, the Offeratory, the Sanctus, the Agnus Dei, the Communion and, of course, the Libera me sequence. Verdi did leave out the oft-used Gloria.

The music of the Requiem is characterized by wild undulations. The composer moves from sparse, otherworldly vocals to brass-heavy inescapable brimstone and fire, and back again. Throughout, he uses the terrifying theme of the Dies irae to remind the listener of their inevitable mortality and judgment, all the while relying on wavering chromaticism to leave a sense of the composer’s own unresolved spiritual questions. 

While the Verdi Requiem has its unmistakably operatic moments, it is a work of far-reaching spiritual and emotional magnitude that at once pushed the religious music envelope and gave new meaning to the phrase “to each his own,” as evidenced by its cross-denominational/cross-cultural longevity and popularity.

Some of our greatest singers and conductors have recorded Verdi's Requiem, and Claudio Abbado has done so at least three times, leading different orchestras and vocal forces. This performance was recorded during public performances in Berlin commemorating the centenary of Verdi's death (25 & 27 January 2001). Ailing even them from the cancer that ultimately claimed him a few weeks ago, Abbado shows just how much this work meant to him in the circumstances. He captures the score's devotional spirit as well as its dramatic power -- and, of course, the Berlin Philharmonic's burnished sound seems tailor-made for this piece.

The soloist quartet of Daniela Barcellona, Angela Gheorghiu, Roberto Alagna and Julian Konstantinov joins Abbado, his orchestra and the combined forces of the Swedish Radio Chorus and Eric Ericson Chamber Choir. Not surprisingly, this performance received a Grammy nomination for the 2002 Best Choral Performance.

I think you will love this music too!

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