Recorded in the grand and atmospheric acoustic of the now demolished Kingsway Hall, this is a really thrilling and dramatic Verdi Requiem, more in the Solti mode rather than the reverential Giulini style and it certainly fields a better team of soloists than what is for me that inexplicably over-praised recording.
I have hardly listened to this since I first bought it on its issue over thirty years ago yet I find my reactions have hardly altered, except for an increased tolerance for Scotto's mannerisms.
Verdi was not a conventionally religious man, if religious at all, and he stresses the human drama of the liturgical text. The more versions of the Verdi Requiem I hear and own - and it must be thirty now - the more I side with Muti's approach here, which is urgent, propulsive and demonstrative in Grand Opera style. It is not especially fast or slow at around 86 minutes but it gives an impression of speed. Muti was not yet forty; this is the first of three recordings of this work and while the second La Scala account has an equally starry quartet of soloists, this one remains his best, despite one major caveat.
Its advantages are many: the sound, I have already mentioned; the Ambrosian Chorus in its heyday, the Philharmonia Orchestra reliably superb, the rock-solid, saturnine bass of Yevgeny Nesterenko in his absolute prime - how another reviewer can describe him has characterless escapes me - the splendid Italianate tenor of Luchetti in the first of his two excellent studio recordings of this work; the tangy, plaintive mezzo-soprano of Agnes Baltsa; these are all distinct bonuses that combine to create one of the most immediate and compelling recordings of this oft-recorded masterpiece that I know.
For some, the stumbling-block is Renata Scotto's wobble. She is extraordinarily expressive and committed, capable of wonderful diminuendos and a superbly controlled messa di voce; she lives every moment of the text with an intensity that completely eludes more recent exponents, some of whom might be singing anything - but the vibrato is distinctly intrusive. She has all the notes, even if the top is a little screechy and I for one am swept along by her conviction. True, the voice should not have been in such perilous condition in only her mid-forties but she pushed too much too soon in spinto roles when perhaps she was essentially a lyric soprano. Who knows? She gave us some splendid verismo turns in roles such as "Adriana Lecouvreur" and "Andrea Chénier" and her singing here is first cousin to those assumptions. It works for me, despite its flaws. Her entry on "Sed signifer" and concluding B flat in the middle section of the "Libera me" are ethereal and the wildness of her subsequent vocalisation in combination with the sheer size of her voice simply adds to the impact.
Every review I write of this piece finds me using the Offertorio as the ultimate test for its quality. This version certainly delivers and I like particularly Luchetti's contribution to the quartet. The swing with which Muti infuses "Quam olim Abrahae" is just right.
I have no great taste for the Cherubini Requiem for all that Beethoven admired it and I love "Medea"; it has always struck me as essentially bland but here it is well performed as a fifty-minute bonus for those who care; I don't.
It helps enormously, when required as a member of a choir to learn a new Requiem within eight weeks, to hear the work in its entirety, knowing that the performers have endured the same learning curve as oneself (albeit as a mere amateur!). This recording captured the drama, energy and beauty of Cherubini's masterpiece, which, on first listening left me completely breathless! Luckily I was able to recover in time to deliver at the concert. The Verdi? Prepare to be both shaken to the bone, and moved to tears.