Verdi: Requiem (CD review)

Kristin Lewis, Violeta Urmana, Piotr Beczala, Ildar Abdrazakov; Philippe Jordan, Orchestre et Choeur de L'Opera National de Paris. Erato 50999 9341402 9.

Verdi's Requiem Mass surely ranks among the greatest of all sacred choral music, right up there with Bach's Mass in B minor, Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, and Mozart's Requiem. You probably already own a favored recording of the work, but that doesn't stop record companies from releasing new interpretations every year, like this new one from Maestro Philippe Jordan, soloists Kristin Lewis, Violeta Urmana, Piotr Beczala, Ildar Abdrazakov, and the Paris National Opera Orchestra and Chorus.

A little background: Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901) wrote his Messa da Requiem in memory of Alessandro Manzoni, an Italian poet and novelist that Verdi admired, the Requiem premiering at the San Marco church in Milan, May 22, 1874. The Requiem is, of course, a musical setting of the Roman Catholic funeral mass, scored for four soloists, a double choir, and orchestra.

For many years, since the late Sixties at least, my own favorite Verdi Requiem has been Carlo Maria Giulini's rendering with an all-star cast on EMI. Although Verdi specifically indicated that he didn't want his Requiem sung operatically--a condition, no doubt, meant to foil the critics of his time who didn't think he could produce anything worthwhile except opera--the Giulini recording is, in fact, a refined yet highly emotional, operatic experience. Likewise, John Eliot Gardiner's period-instruments account on Philips is on the dramatically operatic side, if sounding a bit more sedate than Giulini; nonetheless, I would guess that Gardiner brings us closer to the composer's intentions. And then there's Abbado on DG, a conductor who sees the work as just what it is, a Celebration Mass for the dead and as such fills it not only with the powerful Wrath of God but with gentle and comforting words of mercy and forgiveness, too.

Which in a rather roundabout way brings us to this new recording from Jordan. The conductor seems to want it all ways at once, never quite latching onto a coherent style or structure. The fact is, it's a very fast reading, making Jordan's recording one of the few to fit on a single disc. Indeed, at seventy-seven minutes it's probably the fastest Verdi Requiem I've ever heard. This may be great for listeners who would rather not get up and change a disc in mid performance, and it may have been great for the live audience who heard Jordan's playing it in concert during the recording, but for home listening it makes for a somewhat tiring, sometimes breathless affair.

In addition to Maestro Jordan's rather fast delivery is his tendency to play up, maybe even exaggerate, every dynamic contrast that comes his way. He can start at a whisper and the next moment knock you out of your seat. These quick tempos and wide dynamic fluctuations might make for an exciting performance, but it doesn't seem like a performance entirely in line with Verdi's goals.

In a booklet note Jordan says that performing the Requiem has enabled the Orchestra and Chorus of the Opera "to demonstrate  their understanding of, and feeling for, this overwhelming music." The key word here may be Jordan's belief that the music should be "overwhelming," and he wants to play it that way, making it more monumental than the triumphal march from Aida. Everything about the presentation seems a tad inflated, in the process making the music that much less dramatic, less spiritual, less operatic, and less inspiring than it could be otherwise.

On the other hand, there is no denying the impact of the phrasing, dynamic contrasts, and occasionally dizzying speeds. And there's no denying that the soloists, chorus, and orchestra aren't generally up to the challenge. Jordan's is an interpretation of variety, violent tensions, wild mood swings, but not a lot of contemplative soul searching except perhaps in the Lacrymosa for quartet and chorus and the Lux aeterna for soprano, tenor, and bass, which do come off pretty well.

Erato producer Arnaud Moral and balance engineer Michel Pierre recorded the music live in concert on June 10-11, 2013. There is a very wide dynamic range involved, which I usually wouldn't complain about, except that in this case it tends to be a little distracting from the beauty and solemnity of the music. Besides, when combined with some fairly close live miking, the voices get somewhat harsh and bright in louder passages. It adds a degree of ear fatigue a listener probably doesn't need. Otherwise, the audience members remain quiet enough that they are seldom obtrusive. Although the stereo spread is broadly spaced across the sound stage, depth suffers a bit. So, the sound is impactful, forward, and a little flat; it's clear, to be sure, but not particularly natural or lifelike. Thankfully, the engineers have edited out the final applause.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa