Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Review: Chicago Symphony Orchestra's recording of Verdi's Messa da Requiem

In January of last year, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus recorded 3 live performances of Verdi’s Messa da Requiem under the baton of Riccardo Muti. These performances were then brought together in CD form and recently released on the CSO RESOUND label. Having sung the work a few times and fallen in love with it, I thought it was time to break out the critic hat and get to listening.

Finally! A review.

My very first, knee jerk reaction: the Chicago Symphony Chorus is remarkable. From the first permeating Requiem, they communicate each word with a truly velvety sound through which not only definition, but pathos rings forth. Rich in color, the sopranos don’t sacrifice that color as they climb the scale as many soprano sections tend to do… another recording that I have of an English Choir has the sopranos often with a strident straight toned sound that would most likely peel the paint from the walls.

The bass section of this CSO recording truly anchors the overall sound with a darkness and weight that doesn’t drag the group down. The overall singing from all sections is healthy, vibrant and the voices are balanced. By balanced, I don’t mean between sections… that would be what some consider "blending"… which, to me, is something you do with a cocktail - not a group of voices. What I mean is the singer’s voices are balanced individually and within each section giving the sections a commonality of tone.

Their precise use of consonants is extremely effective and not only gives life to the text, but also adds many effects that are present in the music. For example, in the Sanctus portion of the mass, the sibilance is so crisp that it creates almost a percussiveness that brings to mind a distant high-hat.

And then, there’s the Dies Irae. For me, Verdi’s Dies Irae is the portion of the piece that separates the professionals from the amateurs.
Quantus tremor est futures, quando judex est venturus, cuncta stricte discussurus!

What horror must invade the mind when the approaching judge shall find and sift the deeds of all mankind!
They sing this phrase with such a hushed, yet marked intensity that it is - simply put - heart-stirring. Every sound from this chorus is there - spot on and together with ultimate precision.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra plays spectacularly under the baton of Riccardo Muti [R.] and, again, the detail is to the letter. There is nothing left out. You know, occasionally on these types of recordings (yes, even those from well-known orchestras) you can get a sense of which portions of the piece went under-rehearsed. In this instance, there isn’t that sense – at. all.

Now, before I get to the soloists - I feel the sudden need to share a story.

Back when yours truly was a rookie singer – I think I was in my second year of lessons or something like that – I committed what seemed to be a cardinal sin. I had listened to a recording of a Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and felt that a vocal pedagogy class with my former voice teacher would be a safe place to discuss what I heard.

I know. Why not? Right?

In discussing my observations, I made some rather pointed but relatively harmless comments about a certain "Soprano X". Well, my former voice teacher flipped her lid and wanted me to know that it was NOT ok to talk about any other singers in public. Who did I think I was? "You need to watch every word you say! You never know - ‘Soprano X’ might have a second cousin sitting outside. What if she goes and tells ‘Soprano X’ what you said … the next thing you know, you’re blacklisted from companies. You’ll never be a singer THAT way."

No ... honestly, Friends. I'm not exaggerating.

Even though we all thought this former voice teacher was on the verge of being elected Mayor of Crazytown – I understood her point. A young singer can't really afford to offend anyone by shooting off his mouth about other singers.

Now here I am, years later, and I still find it difficult to speak critically about singers in public. But, for your sake, Chickpeas … I will put aside my fear and carry on.

First off, there is Olga Borodina. These mezzo soprano solos are some of the best singing I’ve heard from her. She gives a very stirring, almost haunting performance and adds just the right amount of thunder to the middle of this quartet. If I were to have one small issue with her performance on this recording, it would be her overly used straight tone. It reminds me of a certain soprano that is known for using straight tone to scoop from note to note. Truly though, Ms. Borodina’s voice is so creamy and lovely, you can easily forgive the issue.

Mario Zeffiri provides a capable tenor. His voice is pleasant enough to the ear, but his upper register lacks the power that you might assume would be necessary when he’s smack dab in the middle of the other voices. His bio boasts that he is an "esteemed interpreter of bel canto repertory" like Don Pasquale, and La fille du régiment - I would much rather listen to him in these works, or perhaps Mozart. But, Verdi … it’s not a good fit for him.

Now, Chiclets – anyone who knows me, knows that I’m big fan of vast, broad and voluminous vibrato. Vast is luscious. Broad is luxurious. Voluminous is savory. But, there is taking the vastness TOO FAR – as in having vibrato that is so boundless, wide and cavernous that you could drive a truck through the oscillations. Soprano Barbara Frittoli allows hers to get to this point in many instances – especially in soft pianissimo singing when her vocal oscillations border on wobble-issimo.

There are many voices out in the world that simply don’t record well. Generally, they are the voices with, shall we say, luxurious vibrati – like Ghena Dimitrova, for example. Her voice was gigantic and had a massive vibrato that sped to the speed of a Porsche at the top of her range. Bless her heart, I actually think that someone replaced Dimitrova’s voice with an air-raid siren without telling her. That being said, it is a well known fact that Dimitrova's voice just didn’t record well. But it sure was a head-splitting thrill in-person. Perhaps Frittoli’s voice is like this. In this case though, I think the unrestrained and burly undulations suck the life out of the music at times.

As for bass Ildar Abdrazakov … I can’t deal, Friendlies. I. Just. Can't. In fact, I’m damn-near speechless where this particular performance is concerned. Mr. Abdrazakov (who happens to be Ms. Borodina's husband) brings to this recording a full-bodied, dark, commanding sound that is present in a very noble and splendid manner. His voice has enough growl to give it depth, but also has the capability to be very shiny and shimmery as well. From a musicality standpoint, his performance has a wonderfully committed, yet subtle quality to it that we don’t see from many of the barking basses currently gracing the operatic and concert stages.

Let it be said: these sort of true Verdian, full-throated, heart-stirring, meticulously precise recordings don’t come along very often. I highly recommend it - even with the minimal imperfections from certain soloists. So, don’t let it pass by without snagging a Messa da Requiem for your own collection. You wont be sorry.

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