Harnoncourt's Reminder: It's Missa Da Requiem 

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G. Verdi, Missa Da Requiem, N.Harnoncourt / WPh, Arnold Schoenberg Choir
Nikolaus Harnoncourt has been on a run lately – not unlike René Jacobs. Recording after recording stun because of their quality, inventiveness and musicality. Although Harnoncourt has proven mortal with a Messiah released just before Christmas (an oddly disengaged and rather dull live recording that attracts the label “rush job”), the live recording of the Verdi Requiem from the Musikverein in Vienna is a different matter. The recording has gotten some positive reviews, if not the universally glowing ones that his latest Mozart Requiem received, but then that is to be expected; Verdi being a more divisive composer when it comes to approaching him with any certain style. And ‘style’ is where Harnoncourt scores or doesn’t score – depending on your predilections.

The label ‘sacred Opera’ has stuck with this work ever since Hans von Bülow penned his critique “Oper im Kirchengewande” (Opera in Church-cloth). George Bernhard Shaw, who knew a good phrase when he saw one, didn’t hesitate to pick it up in his review after the London premier. Eduard Hanslick, interestingly, was more differentiated – but if he didn’t blame Verdi so much for what he heard, he took exception to an all-too operatic delivery of several lines in the work. Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs’ informative liner notes in the Harnoncourt recording try to establish that the critique of Verdi’s work as ‘operatic’ was mostly unfair… but then goes on to detail how even Verdi objected to it being interpreted as Opera by his singers. (“…this mass should not be sung like an opera; phrases and dynamics as would be appropriate in the theater would not, not in the least, please me here!”) Whether the label was ill-applied or not, it went on to be worn as a badge of honor over the years – and many operatic-as-can-be recordings testify to that effect. Gardiner’s recording on Philips (helped by perhaps the best chorus) was a welcome break from that routine.

Now comes Harnoncourt and goes some steps further. If his recording immediately moves to the top of my list, it does so for a general quality of the music making, but also because of those interpretive decisions that others might find the very detriment to this recording. His singers are veterans of the great opera houses but they are not primarily Verdians and have voices that are on the lighter and expressive, rather than heavy, dramatic side. Eva Mei (soprano), Bernada Fink (mezzo), Michael Schade (tenor) and Ildebrando d’Arcangelo (bass) bring agility to the Requiem and sing extraordinarily unmannered. D’Arcangelo is not the deepest of basses to have sung this role, nor are he and his colleague Schade the most authoritative. Even singing with delicacy in mind as they do, more power would not necessarily hurt (if judiciously applied) – although if choosing between either extreme, I’d at once opt for the way this recording presents the male voices. The women are not lacking vocal reserves; it is to their credit that they don’t dispense it all at once. The effect is one of occasional understatement, the extreme grandeur, that moving and over-powering sweep that the Verdi Requiem can have in the best of the ‘heavy’ performances is missing, especially towards the end of the work. Precision and detail are present in spades, though. If you have set expectations of the emotional effect of this work on you, you might experience (initial) disappointment. But if slurred, indiscriminate and excessive portamento annoys the living hell out of you, this is the recording to have. Harnoncourt mercifully cut that habit down to the very minimum – and I am all for it. (Even just one dose of Andrea Bocelli’s – can I mention that name on ionarts? – cat-like howl in the opening of the Gergiev recording will forever cure you of any fondness you might have had for that technique.)

Harnoncourt also uses an edition that includes corrected dynamics and instrumentation. It probably enters the result – which I love for the mentioned reasons – but I cannot say that shy of following the score meticulously, this would be noticeable in any particular instance. The SACD sound (this disc is only available as a SACD hybrid) only helps the immense detail and clarity. There are no audience noises that I was able to discern.

RCA Red Seal 82876 61244 2

Other recomended recordings of Harnoncourt:

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W.A. Mozart (Ed.Beyer/Süssmayr), Requiem, N.Harnoncourt / Concentus Musicus Wien, Arnold Schoenberg Choir
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B. Bartók, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta; Divertimento for String Orchestra, N.Harnoncourt / Chamber Orchestra of Europe
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J. Haydn, Paris Symphonies, N.Harnoncourt / Concentus Musicus Wien
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W.A. Mozart, Early Symphonies, N.Harnoncourt / Concentus Musicus Wien

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