Top Ear

Giulini’s Berlin Verdi Requiem

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Jeremy Lee writes

There are a few major types of Verdi Requiems.  We have the operatic, dramatic camp (Bernstein, Solti, Muti, Pappano), the cool-headed, more emotionally distant camp (Bychkov, Abbado), the coolly analytical camp (Harnoncourt à la Boulez), and the spiritual, reverential camp (Karajan, Celibidache).  Carlo Maria Giulini’s Berlin version on DG, recorded in 1989, definitely falls into the last camp, and even though it may be overshadowed by his earlier Philharmonia recording on EMI in terms of reputation, this DG effort is nonetheless worthy.

The opening Requiem Aeternam features some of the most exquisite soft-playing I’ve ever heard, with phrasing as natural as respiration.  Giulini smooths out quite a lot of contrasts, and the ravishing Ernst-Senff-Chor follows suit, notably the entrance of the men in Te Decet Hymnus, which is above all reverential than forceful.  The Kyrie is also beautifully done, sporting some very empathetic singing from the soloists.  This almost untouchable aura of meditation is carried over to the Agnus Dei (though I must note some intonational problems of the soprano and mezzo) and most of the Libera Me, with some spine-tingling singing from Sharon Sweet.

However, while Karajan and Celibidache (even Celibidache!) let rip in the more dramatic episodes (and there are quite a few), Giulini doesn’t.  The Dies Irae is quite restrained, despite the not particularly slow tempi and the choir which sounds ever eager to break through Giulini’s boundaries (though Giulini still keeps them reined back).  So-so bass-drum thwacks and a not very menacing Quantus tremor est futurus lead to a Tuba Mirum which sees Giulini a bit more involved dramatically (the Berlin brass are spectacular–simply the best trumpets I’ve ever heard in any rendition!), but in the Mors Stupebit Giulini’s lack of nervous tension seems to revert to his previous, slightly stuporous self.  The Sanctus also never seems to catch fire despite some rarely-heard clarity in the chorus’ fugal lines.

Interpretation-wise, then, this Verdi Requiem is painted in shades of reverence, deep reverence, light reverence and slightly dramatic reverence, which is probably what Verdi wouldn’t have wanted, nor will it be what many other people accustomed to fire-breathing readings would tolerate.  In terms of the juxtaposition between spirituality and drama, Karajan has a much wider interpretative palate, or even wider still, Celibidache.  So if you’d much prefer drama over spirituality, basically all my praises for this recording’s unbeatable playing and, to a smaller extent, sonics (which are great, with all those spatial effects well captured, though a bit congested in the climaxes–no match for EMI’s engineers for Pappano’s), would largely fall by the wayside.

But anyway, this recording, the last of Giulini’s umpteenth recorded Verdi Requiems, is not the recording you would look for if you want drama and power–if you want that and Giulini in this repertoire, look for those live performances on BBC Legends and the EMI Philharmonia one, or better still, see what Solti, Bernstein, Pappano and the late Colin Davis can do.  And if you think you’ve had enough of the Verdi Requiem being called a “liturgical opera” (and I have), just hear for yourself what Giulini does here.


  • Album name:  Verdi:  Requiem
  • Performers:  Sharon Sweet (soprano);  Florence Quivar (mezzo-soprano);  Vinson Cole (tenor);  Simon Estes (bass);  Carlo Maria Giulini (conductor);  Berliner Philharmoniker;  Ernst-Senff-Chor
  • Label:  DG 423 674-2
  • Sonics:  Stereo DDD
  • Total playing time:  97:02

Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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