MUSIC / Double Play: Burying Verdi

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The Independent Culture
VERDI: Requiem. Four Sacred Pieces Studer, Lipovsek, Carreras, Raimondi, Vienna State Opera Chorus, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Claudio Abbado (DG 435 884-2: two CDs)

COULD it be that Abbado is simply too much in love with, and not enough in awe of, the Requiem? That was my first thought as its 'Libera me' finally fell silent.

The moments of contemplation, of supplication, were still with me: the eternal tremolando at the close of the 'Lacrymosa', the climbing cellos, so reassuring at the start of the 'Offertorio', the simple unisons of the 'Agnus Dei'. Abbado is infinitely stronger in mourning than in visions of the apocalypse. He doesn't scorch the canvas, as did Toscanini, with the rampant trumpet trills and bass drum cracks of doom of the 'Dies Irae'; in the mounting fanfares of the 'Tuba mirum' and the climactic fugue of the 'Libera me' he is high priest more than he is God-fearer. Even his choir - a comely, somewhat woolly ensemble - finds more focus, more concentration in pianissimo than fortissimo. The introspective hush (both here and in the Four Sacred Pieces) is its forte. The men are particularly weak, the basses well and truly caught napping with a disgracefully ragged 'Te decet hymnus' just moments into the performance.

But it's the solo singing that can, and should, illuminate any performance of this piece, even if the perfect team is likely to remain an impossible dream. Ruggero Raimondi has great vocal charisma but is inclined to croon, Marjana Lipovsek delivers a 'Liber scriptus' displaying great awareness of her text but lacks the forbidding lower register. Carreras can still break your heart with the covered beauty of his head tone, while Cheryl Studer gives us a memorable exhibition of the lirico spinto style with floated implorings leading to a quite exquisite high B flat in her final bid for eternal light. ES

A FAIR 2:2 for the Requiem is the most I can manage. What Abbado does with the orchestral writing is almost always impressive, and the recording makes sure we hear it all, sometimes in surprisingly fine detail. Cheryl Studer certainly has the strength, technique and imagination to scale the heights and depths of the 'Libera me', but my blood remained unfrozen. Lipovsek is less demonstrative, but somehow more engaging, and then there's Carreras - wild at times, but overflowing with feeling.

The dud performance is Raimondi's; it's underpowered and there are pitch problems - there's a serious disagreement between him and the Vienna strings at the end of the 'Mors stupebit'. The chorus sings enthusiastically and accurately, but the recording mutes it - it's lovely to hear the orchestral earthquake, wind and fire done so well at the beginning of the 'Dies irae', but surely it's the multitudes of shrieking sinners that should be centre-stage.

For the Four Sacred Pieces it has to be a straight third- class. The chorus sounds much less involved, and although Abbado is obviously right to take note of Verdi's comments about holding to the same basic tempo in the Stabat mater and the Te Deum, I think his reading is too literal - too four-square. Surely that's the last thing one wants from Verdi. SJ


Concerto. Two Romances

Stephanie Chase, The Hanover

Band / Roy Goodman

(Cala CACD 1013)

THE FIRST four notes - the tap of hard stick on skin-headed timpani - give the game away. Reedy oboes, corpulent bassoons (lending delicious rusticity to the finale), trumpet-bright tuttis, add to the distinctive colour of a period-instrument performance. But such are the wonders that the young American Stephanie Chase performs here, on a Tyrolean violin from the early to mid-1700s, that she could have fooled me.

Not so very long ago, Nigel Kennedy spun out Beethoven's heavenly lengths with an incurable old romantic's relish. Chase, with an instrument of lesser tonal richness and reach, yields little or nothing to his rapture, finding flexibility and freedom in the turning rather than the lengthening of phrases, and capturing that poetic aerial quality through the purity and truth of her intonation and an intense awareness of just how much might be achieved with dynamics and the subtle gradation of vibrato.

It's a poised and stylish performance, exceptional bow control matched with an affecting inner radiance. The succinct cadenzas are Chase's own, including, in the Rondo, a fleeting Eingang - a couple of ad libitum bars that you won't find on any of the other 50-plus rival recordings. ES

PERIOD instruments mean revelations here as much as anywhere, but how many of them are welcome? Can Beethoven really have entrusted the concerto's magical quiet opening timpani taps to what sounds like a piece of old oil-drum? The welcome surprises come in the big orchestral moments. Thanks to those marvellously un-improved 18th-century trumpets they aren't ponderous and monolithic - they blaze.

It is the outer movements, though, where Goodman and his team score most of their hits. I found the slow movement fatally matter-of-fact, despite Stephanie Chase's persuasive playing. But it's Chase herself who scores the biggest hit of all. She makes the 18th-century violin speak and sing with astonishing eloquence and technical security - in fact in places you might forget that it isn't a modern instrument, despite the lighter sound and the relatively sparing use of vibrato.

The final verdict? I'm not wholly convinced, but I'm fascinated. There's more to this than a historical exercise, even if that opening makes one wonder what Beethoven could have been thinking of. SJ