This is my fourth SACD of Verdi's Requiem, in a continuing search for my ideal. The quick review is that it doesn't displace my previous choices. Sir Colin Davis shapes a dramatic and exciting reading. His overall time of 82'04" compares with Bychkov (Profil) at 80'16" and Harnoncourt (RCA) at 87'43" (all times taken from SACD covers). The LSO and chorus respond admirably, and while the chorus may not be quite as refined as some of the competition, it still impresses with its unanimity, variations of expression and clarity of diction. I find it difficult to comment in detail on the soloists, due to the recording, of which more later. Christine Brewer (sop) has little difficulty with Verdi's demands and finishes with an affecting Libera Me. Karen Cargill (mezzo) is a new voice to me, and has a rich timbre that to my ears tends towards masculinity in the lower register, but that is my personal taste and does not detract from a committed performance. Stuart Neill (ten) produces some gorgeous soft singing, but tends to harden when under pressure in the high register. John Relyea (bass) suffers least from the recording and produces a consistently fine sound, with a thrilling Mors Stupebit. As a quartet, the soloists blend well together. The LSO Live series, in my opinion, has been uneven in recording quality. The best of them that I have bought are Smetana's Ma Vlast and Sibelius' symphonies 1 and 4, which are very much to my taste. When the recordings fail to satisfy me, it is inevitably due to closeness, presumably to exclude audience noise. This one suffers in the same way. Overall, the level is lower than average and needs (according to my amplifier) an extra 2dB to match Bychkov and 3dB to match Harnoncourt. Even with this extra volume, I find the sound constricted and opaque, despite having an acceptable balance. There is rear information, including off-stage trumpets, but there is never a believable ambience. This might have something to do with the Barbican's indifferent reputation, but I suspect it is more to do with close microphones. I have to admit that there are no extraeneous sounds (I had to get rid of Bosch's SACD on Coviello because I could no longer live with the audience noise), but this goes too far in the other direction. A quick listen to Harnoncourt's live recording shows how much better it should be. The soloists are balanced naturally against the other musicians, that is to say neither spotlit nor submerged. They do however appear to share a common resonance which adds an edginess to the higher voices; hence my reluctance to make detailed comments on their contribution. So this is a disappointing issue for me, especially since I like Sir Colin Davis's view of the work. My overall choice has to be for Bychkov on SACD, nearly as fine a recording as given to Harnoncourt and with more comfortable tempi. Abbado's EMI DVD still impresses in DTS surround.
I came to this recording with much lower expectations than I brought to the new Pappano release, which perhaps partly explains why I found myself enjoying it much more than I had expected. You can find wholly contradictory reviews of this live performance: one reviewer find it tepidly "British" in its understatement and Davis' approach uninspired; another rightly complains about the unnatural closeness of the recording, which produces a constricted ambience and, most unfortunately of all, permits us to be constantly on the receiving end of Sir Colin's persistent grunts and groans - an all too prominent feature of all his recent recordings and a right royal pain of a distraction. Yet another review states "This is one of the most driven things I've heard Davis do". So what is the truth of it? For my part, I found much of this performance really satisfying and certainly not so underpowered. It is true that the chorus sounds far from refined or homogeneous at times - occasionally even a bit ragged with too many individual voices obtruding from what should be an imposing mass of sound - and that there is altogether too much vibrato in the soloists' voices, but these features were probably exaggerated by the closeness of the miking and there are many compensations, not least the excellence of Scottish mezzo Karen Cargill, a last-minute replacement for Larissa Diadkova. I was not previously familiar with her voice, but she is quite a discovery: she has a rich, genuinely Verdian mezzo and is certainly far preferable in both timbre and emotional involvement to Pappano's Ganassi. Stuart Neill has a hefty tenor which he lightens effectively at key points, while Relyea's contribution is really distinguished if not as rich as some of his predecessors, such as Siepi or Ghiaurov. Christine Brewer's soprano proves to be a mixed blessing: her entry in the Offertorio on "Sed signifer Sanctus Michael" is magical and some notes are ideally floated, whereas on other, louder notes she becomes acidic. She is perhaps not a real Verdi soprano but her contribution certainly does not constitute a blot on the set even if she could ideally be more involved - and Harteros in the Pappano set is similarly cool, without quite Brewer's vocal distinction. Brewer certainly leaves a very positive impression with the beauty and security of her delivery of the final slow "Requiem" passage in the "Libera me". Finally, some love the way Davis has his chorus whisper at key points, others find it corny; I think it works - just about.
All in all, I can only suggest that you listen before you buy - although this is very cheap and worth the risk if you think you might like it. I do, even if this is not amongst my very favourite versions.