on 22 October 2005
EMI's Walter Legge famously plotted long and hard to get what he believed to be the ideal quartet of soloists together for a commercial recording of Verdi's Requiem. The conductor was to be Carlo Maria Giulini, one of the greatest conductors of Verdi in the twentieth century. The curious thing is that this recording shows that Legge got it wrong: right orchestra, right conductor, right chorus, wrong soloists. Carlo Maria Giulini was conducting this work a lot in the mid-Sixties, with the Philharmonia Orchestra in particular. The BBC recorded performances at the Proms in 1963 and the following April in the Royal Festival Hall. It is the latter recording that is presented here. It is a mono recording and the RFH has never, in its five decades, been celebrated for the quality of its acoustic, but I don't believe any lover of this work, or anyone new to it, could regret buying this recording on the basis of sound quality. Giulini, the orchestra and the chorus were incomparably proficient in their performance of the piece in 1964. The orchestra would go into a bizarre (and mercifully temporary) decline in the following years, but there is no hint of that here. The chorus is immaculate, if their pronunciation is a little too English; it says much for their preparation and quality that their diction is so clear. The soloists, however, are what make this recording stand out over others, particularly over the others conducted by Giulini. It should be stressed that both the BBC recordings by Giulini and his famous EMI recording are excellent. Of the foursome expensively collected by Legge for EMI, however, only Nikolai Gedda equals his opposite number in this recording. Good as Gedda is, I think that anyone who knows the EMI recording will recognise that it is the contribution of the great Christa Ludwig which is its chief glory, but, in the person of Grace Bumbry, this recording eclipses even Christa Ludwig. I have heard many recordings of this work, along with hundreds of performances of operas and other choral works, but Grace Bumbry's singing here is the single most beautiful performance of any singing I have ever heard. She stands out above her colleagues, then, but they are extremely fine, too. The late Sandor Konya excelled in both Verdi and Wagner, before Placido Domingo tried his hand at the latter; Konya's neglect by the recording companies is a tragedy. Ilva Ligabue is easily a match for Schwarzkopf on the famous EMI recording. The Bulgarian (despite his Italian name) bass, Raffaele Arie is excellent, at least matching his compatriot on EMI, the late Nikolai Ghiaurov (we have lost many great musicians this year). Perhaps neither quite matches the unsung David Ward, on the BBC/Giulini 1963 recording, but Arie is very fine. Giulini has recorded at least one further performance of this work, a regrettable, eminently forgettable, outing for DG, but the two BBC accounts and the EMI one are the ones which matter. All three are glorious, this one, thanks, above all, to Grace Bumbry, the best of all. I still believe that the 1960 Deutsche Grammophon recording, conducted by Ferenc Fricsay, is incomparably moving, while the pre-war performance conducted by Tullio Serafin, with Gigli and Pinza, is remarkable, too. If Fricsay's remains my favourite recording, this one runs it closer than any of the others and should definitely be heard.