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Harnoncourt's Reminder: It's Missa Da Requiem

available at Amazon
G.Verdi, Missa Da Requiem,
N.Harnoncourt / WPh, Arnold Schoenberg Choir
B.Fink, M.Schade, E.Mei, I.D'Arcangelo

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 Bernard 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.

Other recomended recordings of Harnoncourt:
available at Amazon
W. A. Mozart (Ed.Beyer/Süssmayr), Requiem, N. Harnoncourt / Concentus Musicus Wien, Arnold Schoenberg Choir
available at Amazon
B. Bartók, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta; Divertimento for String Orchestra, N. Harnoncourt / COE
available at Amazon
J. Haydn, Paris Symphonies, N. Harnoncourt / Concentus Musicus Wien
available at Amazon
W. A. Mozart, Early Symphonies, N. Harnoncourt / Concentus Musicus Wien


Anonymous said...

Harnoncourt’s 2001 Grammy Award Winner (for best choral album) Bach: St. Matthew Passion could also have been mentioned in this review. The soloists, particularly Matthias Goerne and Christine Schafer, are outstanding. The generous packaging includes a 96-page hardcover booklet. While John Eliot Gardiner's meatier (and more satisfying) recording still stands as the one to beat, many will hold onto this one, too, particularly because the third disc is a CD-ROM that includes Bach's complete autograph score to view on your computer.

jfl said...

It could have. But it's further back and not part of these amazing 'un-Harnoncourtish' CDs (like Smetana, Dvorak, Bartok, Mozart, Haydn, Verdi are). I happen to think the third Harnoncourt Matthew's Passion to be the best one available for all those that like "HIP".

Anonymous said...

Harnoncourt's 2001 recording of Bach's St. Matthew Passion happened to be exactly his third recording of Passion. And I agree with you, it's the best one. The previous two (1970 and 1986) are not as good as this one.

Anonymous said...

Portamento is a well-documented vocal effect of the 18th and 19th centuries - John Potter has very recently written a nice article in Music and Letters reviewing its status in singing textbooks written over that period and in early 20th century recordings.

Portamento was always an essential element of good legato singing - and therefore must be 'slurred'! How can it be otherwise?

Perhaps modern singers don't do it very well, but there is absolutely no historical reason against it, either in sacred or secular music.

Now vibrato is something different ... the Amazon review of Harnoncourt says his singers wobble intrusively, which was absolutely not part of good 19th century technique.

Incidentally have you heard Ferenc Fricsay's Requiem recording? It has many qualities which you identify with the Harnoncourt (possibly including an overstretched tenor)... but probably about 20 minutes faster! (How slow should a slow Verdi tempo be??)