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Verdi's Requiem at the Kennedy Center

Conductor Stéphane Denève's Verdi Requiem at the Kennedy Center stopped being special after 35 seconds. In the kernel of Verdi's hushed, almost inaudible ppp beginning lie all the emotions, thrills, and the fire that then supply the rest of the 90-some-minute work. In that sense, I see a kinship with Wagner's Rheingold (may I be spared the wrath of ACD for such a comparison) and Bruckner's 5th and 8th symphonies, only that the latter has about tenfold the spirituality of the Verdi Requiem.)

available at Amazon
G.Verdi, Requiem,
F.Fricsay / RIAS SO
M.Stader, K.Borg, M.Radev, H.Krebs

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G.Verdi, Requiem,
C.M.Giulini / Philharmonia O&C
C.Ludwig, N.Gedda, E.Schwarzkopf, N.Ghiaurov

available at Amazon
G.Verdi, Requiem,
J.E.Gardiner / ORR / Monteverdi Choir
L.Orgonasova, A.Miles, A.v.Otter, L.Canonici

The difficultly is to take this awe-inspiring beginning and extend the sense of something special going on, to keep the listener in a state of awe and emotional surrender. Muddled choral entries with fuzzy edges and the basses' and tenors' uninhibited belching out at the first sight of a ff put a quick end to that state, as did incessant and ruthless coughing during the quietest passages.

Daniel Ginsberg's statement about the Choral Arts Society's Matthew Passion—the performance having been more than the sum of its parts—applied then in the sense of good things coming together to form something sublime. It applied to the Requiem this Thursday also, albeit on a different, somewhat lower level.

Among the performers, only mezzo soprano Olga Borodina was beyond reproach. (Her recording of the Verdi Requiem under Gergiev is sadly rendered unlistenable by Andrea Bocelli's horrific performance. He's much better now, actually.) Tenor Marcus Haddock, who enjoys a career that brings him to all the respected opera houses in the world, was very dramatic and had a tendency to substitute loudness for volume, causing passages to sound narrow and forced, especially early on in the work. The MET-hardened Verdi soprano Marina Mescheriakova had a few characteristically glorious moments but unfortunately also many lesser ones. Bass Ildar Abdrazakov was consistent and solid.

Robert Shafer's Washington Chorus performed mightily, but without the definition, flexibility and responsiveness that I have heard it display on other occasions. The NSO was blameless, without going beyond the call of duty.

The work is a bear to perform, much less to conduct, so the young French conductor Stéphane Denève, too, cannot be faulted for losing grasp of the many threads. It goes to the credit of all of those involved that the performance still convinced. It had drama to spare: explosive and attention-grabbing moments with brass broadsides, timpani thunder, and trumpet calls from all directions. The NSO and The Washington Chorus will perform again today, Friday, and Saturday at 8 PM.

Great recordings exemplify, although without the thrill that a live performance invariably brings, what the Verdi Requiem can be. Fricsay was devilishly good the first time around. Giulini's EMI account radiates and glows since 1964. Gardiner on Philips has a perfect choir (Monteverdi Choir) and modern sound among his many assets. Harnoncourt takes the opera out of it, and gets back to the thrilling basics.

Tim Page's more positive review can be read here.

Charles reviewed the Requiem at the Kennedy Center in 2003. A 2006 performance at the Kennedy Center (with Valery Gergiev) was reviewed here; a 2010 performance of Gergiev with the Munich Philharmonic here.

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