Verdi's Requiem Mass has been described as his greatest opera, and it is undeniable that it has an abundance of drama. For those who have not heard this work, it goes well beyond preconceptions of 'sacred' music and grips the listener's emotions mercilessly. Of all the requiems that I have heard (and have sung as a bass chorus member) it is a personal favourite.
For years my first choice of recording was Telarc's magnificent achievement conducted by Robert Shaw, and I was ambivalent when I first saw this one as a CD. Live performances have sometimes disappointed me because of the compromise between excluding audience noise and allowing sufficient ambience. This one appeared to have solved the riddle and I had few complaints.
Later the DVD version appeared and I was tempted by the addition of Dolby Digital and DTS audio tracks. This took my pleasure far beyond that given by the excellent stereo CD sound.
Firstly, Claudio Abbado conducts with absolute authority and control over his forces, but this tells only part of the story. He is totally immersed in the emotions of the work, as is evidenced by his expressions when we see his close-up shots. There are moments when he appears close to tears (me too). At the end of the performance he holds a silence of fully 20 seconds before allowing the audience to burst into applause.
I need say no more of the orchestra and chorus than that I can find no point of criticism for either.
Both the mezzo Daniela Barcellona and bass Julian Konstantinov have rich, full, controlled voices and do the work full justice. Video shows Konstantinov to work the hardest of all four soloists, perspiring freely under the TV lighting.
Of the 'dream couple' Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna, she is awe-inspiring and he somewhat less so. I have enjoyed the quality of Alagna's superb tenor voice on many occasions, but here he appears a little ill at ease. In the Ingemisco he rushes from the beginning; Abbado and the orchestra adjust skilfully and little damage is done. There are no such problems in the ensemble sections.
It is difficult to find enough superlatives for Gheorghiu's virtuoso performance. Full of passion and drama, her voice soars effortlessly to the demanding heights required by Verdi, and she produces spine-tingling variations of volume and colour.
I much prefer the DTS audio track. Mike Clements is credited as the balance engineer, and in my view he deserves at least a knighthood, (possibly even a sainthood given the nature of the music!) for successfully achieving an excellent balance between huge forces whilst allowing sufficient ambience with only very little audience noise.
The pictures are fully up to the best I have seen on DVD, albeit with some digital artefacts on moving wide-angle shots. I might have been slightly aggrieved by defocused microphone cables sometimes just becoming visible in the foreground of shots were it not for the knowledge that without them Mike Clements would not have been able to produce such a satisfying soundstage, just wider than the front speakers and with a full dynamic and frequency range. The final 'Libera Me' is a demonstration-worthy section, including the bass drum strokes from the 'Dies Irae' and allowing Gheorghiu to display an amazing array of vocal gymnastics, soaring high above everyone else before ending with a hushed pianissimo.
The SACD recordings of this work that I have heard do not usurp this one in my affections.
An appeal to EMI - please, please reconsider SACD. This DVD shows just how much is gained from good multichannel recording, and that EMI is up there with the best of them. I'm sure I cannot be the only one gradually replacing CD with SACD, and at the moment EMI has excluded itself from that market.