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Stunning, hair-rising Requiem
on 1 October 2006
This may well be the Verdi Requiem you always waited for; in spite of its almost 40 years of having been recorded, it is only now that it gains legal and therefore more widespread circulation. Thoroughly idiomatic, with a cast the stuff dreams are made of, a marvellous and authentic-souding choir and orchestra. If Karajan's antics and mimics, the maestro ever the grand poseur, annoy or distract you, turn the telly off and just listen to the sound through a good sound system. The sound is remarkably fresh and proportions or sound planes between soloists, orchestra and chorus well managed. The La Scala orchestra may not be the Berlin Philharmonic -at the time an awe-inspiring virtuoso body of orchestral musicians, but Karajan still ventured ocasionally out of his Philharmonie to conduct elsewehere and other ensembles, his love affair with the Dresden orchestra is well documented- but they were long accustomed to the maestro's ways (they had often worked together since the war and through the 1950's and 1960's) and their enthusiasm and commitment do compensate for their lack of finesse -again, compared to the berliners of the time, I don't want to imply they play sloppily or inaccurately, nothing of the sort, they may well have been, and by far, Italy's best orchestra at the time-. The vocal quartet is beyond belief and has been sufficiently praised by specialised critics the world over.
There were complaints in the press at the time of the concert this film was connected to about Karajan's overly theatrical approach, but in a way the work calls for it, Toscanini being the obvious model. Southern european warmth and commitment, roman catholic awe before the inevitability of death ot the ever announced day of wrath and a musical setting much imbued of the pomp and circumstance the Vatican Council would do away with a century later? That is the cultural environment the performance takes place in, the performance inheritance Karajan and his musicians performed under, barely three years after Vatican II strongly frowned upon the liturgical context Verdi wrote for, regardles of whether you think this Requiem better suits the church or the theatre. In some way or another, most of the great recordings of the work throughout the 20th century are closely associated with italians or roman catholics (Toscanini, De Sabata, Serafin, Abbado, Muti), practising or not but definitely bred and raised within a solid roman catholic conception of what a Requiem Mass is about and what it means. Does the work prove elusive to non-catholics then? Perhaps, but Karajan extracts wonders from his performers, Price and Cossotto the undoubted stars of the event. The would-be Parma footballer, Luciano Pavarotti, (thank God he exchanged the ball for the voice) is hard to recognise without his familiar beard and (for his later standards) slenderness, rendering a Kyrie and an Ingemisco that announce why he was starting to make a lot of noise in italian musical circles (and proves Karajan's hindsight as regards promising singers), Ghiaurov was by then an established figure, sought by all great houses on both sides of the Atlantic.
There is no way for me to sufficiently praise this recording. There are visual flaws as the work was studio-recorded to a large extent (if not in its entirety, there's no way to tell accurately) and the sound later dubbed in onto the image, which of course allowed Karajan to concentrate substantial film time on his image, gesturing and playing the mesmeriser to orchestra, soloists and chorus before an absent audience. He was, as I said above, a grand poseur but no doubt a fabulously equipped musician, to borrow somewhat from Harold Schonberg's remark on Bruno Walter, as this Verdi Requiem recording amply proves.
Full 1960's glamour then, weird female hairdos and all, all fully dressed up in full gala costumes for a truly memorable experience.