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Dip Your Ears: No. 265 (Muti’s 1981 Verdi Requiem)

available at Amazon
G.Verdi, Missa da Requiem
R.Muti / BRSO
BR Klassik

Riccardo Muti’s Star-Studded 1981 Verdi Requiem

Bewildering Muti

Riccardo Muti is as Janus-faced a conductor as I know. His best is the best, his worst the worst. He can blow the roof off with one type of repertoire and he can bore the life out of every note with another. Groping through his discography and sitting through enough of his concerts, I’ve come up with the following theorems: Younger Muti is marginally more interesting than older Muti, but if that’s the case, it’s completely overshadowed by the differences in repertoire. Great repertoire includes: Anything post-romantic Russian is great. Think Prokofiev and Scriabin, where his symphonic recordings are still unsurpassed. Almost anything Italian, too, but especially these: Cherubini, which he lovingly tends to. Nino Rota, his mentor, whom he champions. Verdi, whom – softly and fiery – he knows inside out. And Respighi, where he over-the-tops it to jaw-dropping effect. So-so repertoire: Everything else. Atrocious: Bruckner, Schubert.

On-Paper Excellence

This view colors my expectations, which isn’t always aiding a reasonably objective opinion, but it’s not clear in which direction. Will I necessarily like that which I assume to be great and loathe what I expect to be junk? Or will I have too-high expectations disappointed in the former case and very low expectations exceeded in the latter? So much to think about and I haven’t even put BR Klassik’s new release of a 1981 live recording of Muti conducting the Verdi Requiem into the CD tray yet. Well, it really is the corker that it promises to be. The soloists Jessye Norman, Agnes Baltsa, José Carreras, and Yevgeny Nesterenko promise and deliver. Baltsa isn’t the smokiest, haunting alto (as, say, Ekaterina Semenchuk), but gorgeous and at the height of her powers. José Carreras has the mellifluous lightness that lets him navigate his tricky part without the embarrassing slurs and wails that so often undo this work. Norman plows through the score with aplomb but also creamy finesse. And Nesterenko, who passed away last year, doesn’t rumble in the basement but adds a welcome lyrical quality to the proceedings. The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra plays with the perfection that was already then its hallmark (delicate string whispers, turn-on-a-dime dynamic changes) but also lets itself be whipped into an absolute frenzy by Muti, as is true for the BR Chorus, who Muti audibly loves working with. His take is dramatic rather than sulfurous, deliberately powerful rather than violently thrusting but crucially: never Zeffirelli-harmless. I am in theory partial towards darker, brisker, more biting readings, but not only do I not know any half-way flawless recordings in that vein, Muti also just convinces on sheer quality and decibels. And there is nothing about the event being live that detracts from the sonic experience.

Compared to what?

The whole thing is a top-notch recording, every bit as good or – thanks to Norman – actually better than his 1979 EMI/Warner take (Scotto, Baltsa, Luchetti, Nesterenko) and much more moving than the grand, self-conscious, stilted 1987 effort (EMI, Studer, Zajic, Pavarotti, Ramey). His latest recording, from Chicago (CSO-Resound, Frittoli, Borodina, Zeffiri, Abdrazakov) packs a punch but is let down by the high voices. Most Verdi Requiem recordings have some flaw or another that one has to overlook for true enjoyment. This leaves some very old accounts still among my favorites, starting with bracing Leinsdorf (oop) and Fricsay by way of Solti II, Gardiner’s HIP take, and, most recently Barenboim: another good slow-burn reading but let down by the male soloists. (I haven’t listened to Noseda’s LSO discyet; his Verdi Requiems live, however, have been splendid.) In short: Listen to it!


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