Top Ear

Maazel’s Verdi Requiem: A Moving Valediction

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Jeremy Lee writes

Lorin Maazel died on July 13, 2014, and upon his death the musical world mourned at the loss of one of the few remaining “conducting firebrands”:  an extremely gifted and technically secure conductor whose musicality and personality often polarized listeners, especially during his later years.  A frustratingly variable conductor at times, when he was on he could deliver performances of rare insight and magnetism (Mahler 4, VPO), but when he was off he could create unmitigated disasters (Mahler 3, VPO).  Having gone through his massive discography, we come to this Verdi Requiem, a live recording performed only five months before his death, and his very last recording.

Like I have mentioned in my previous reviews of various versions of Verdi’s Requiem, the various interpretations between conductors generally fall into distinct categories, mainly spiritual/reverential, and driving/dramatic/operatic.  Yet Maazel’s interpretation is rather hard to pigeonhole.  At over 92 minutes in length this is one of the slowest Verdi Requiems on disc, but none of the slower numbers (such as the opening Requiem Aeternam, or the Agnus Dei) strike me as being particularly spiritual or reverential–or even particularly slow.  Nor do the dramatic sections deliver blows to your solar plexus like Solti–most of Maazel’s attacks are soft-grained, and the brass and percussion sit inside the orchestral sonority rather than blaze with effrontery.  Much like Bernard Haitink’s Mahler with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (and some of Maazel’s late Mahler with the Philharmonia Orchestra), what we get is a pretty much standard interpretation with standard tempo proportions between sections and movements, but overall taken at a slightly slower tempo than normal.  And the similarities don’t end there:  like Haitink’s late Mahler, the advantage of such an approach in Maazel’s Verdi Requiem is retaining structural integrity throughout the music, while revealing inner detail and texture to a greater degree as well as heightening the sense of grandeur in the louder sections.  The Dies Irae is a case in point:  immaculately transparent textures married to climaxes of impressive intensity and grandiosity (here one will have noticed that the famous four opening G minor chords are played slightly more tenuto than the usual “orchestral hit”).

But wait a minute there.  “Immaculately transparent textures married to climaxes of impressive intensity and grandiosity”?  Don’t those qualities remind you of another Verdi Requiem?  Why yes, it’s Celibidache’s Verdi Requiem, recorded in 1993 with this very same orchestra and choir.  In fact, besides the point about the textures and grandeur, there are many uncanny similarities between the two recordings:  slow tempi (Celi’s, at 102 minutes, is by far the slowest Verdi Requiem on disc), an orchestra and choir whose standards and singular tone have been impressively retained since Celi’s death (more on that later), and sometimes even down to the fine details (the slow and heavily inflected choral response at the start of the Libera Me).  Yet it is obvious that Celibidache has the more distinctive view:  his brass blaze more prominently, his textures even more transparent, to say nothing of the controversially slow pace he takes for the slower sections (which accounts for the recording’s atypically long running time).  And of course there’s the spirituality, an admittedly difficult-to-describe quality that one can feel in Celibidache’s performance but not in Maazel’s.

Taken on its own, though, the performance taken as a whole is still pretty good.  As we have established, Maazel’s view of the work is generally standard and non-interventionist, neither particularly spiritual nor dramatic, so one of the major assets of this performance is the Munich Philharmonic and Choir whose rich tone I like to liken to black ebony.  All of the orchestral sections acquit themselves well, while the choir’s diction is admirably clear and precise (though not as heavily “mannered” as Celibidache’s, which will be an advantage to some listeners).  Another asset concerns the soloists, particularly Anja Harteros, a starry diva who has previously recorded the work under Pappano.  As previously, her interpretation is highly dramatic, her technique impeccably secure (the inhumanly steady high B-Flat in Libera Me, for example), and her tone pure and luxurious. However, she was even more stunning under Pappano, with a lighter and brighter tone, narrower vibrato and absolutely controlled, enrapturing pianissimos (both were recorded live so the provenance is not an excuse).  In addition, Harteros blended with the other soloists better in Pappano’s recording–compare both Agnus Deis to hear what I am on about.  Daniela Barcellona bears a deep and dark tone–a real contralto sound–but is ultimately uneventful, not least because Verdi doesn’t include many opportunities for her to shine.  Wookyung Kim’s tone is disarmingly beautiful and his vibrato beautifully judged, but his emphasis of vowels over consonants make for a rather unidiomatic listening experience.  No such quibbles for Georg Zeppenfeld whose entrances in Mors Stupebit and Confutatis are as imposing as one could wish for.

This Verdi Requiem, then, surely isn’t perfect (none are, obviously), but for its considerable strong points, and as a fitting last tribute to the art of Lorin Maazel, it certainly is worth listening to.  Not many conductors were lucky enough to have a great conclusion to their discography (Klemperer, Solti and above all Bernstein are few examples).  Maazel was one of the lucky ones, and his artistry will be all the better off for it.


  • Album name:  Verdi:  Messa da Requiem
  • Performers:  Anja Harteros (soprano);  Daniela Barcellona (contralto);  Wookyung Kim (tenor);  Georg Zeppenfeld (bass);  Lorin Maazel (conductor);  Munchner Philharmoniker;  Philharmonischer Chor Munchen
  • Label:  Sony 88875083302
  • Sonics:  Stereo DDD
  • Total playing time:  1:32:17

Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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