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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, July 3, 2015 - Volume 43 Issue 27
Can excellent soloists save the show?
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Can excellent soloists save the show?

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

VERDI'S MESSA DA REQUIEM
SYMPHONICA TOSCANINI
CORO DEL MAGGIO
MUSICALE FIORENTINO
BLU-RAY


The four-minute, thirty-second intro to this Blu-ray disc reveals lovely shots of Venice, with a very bored-looking Lorin Maazel walking toward the Basilica di San Marco, Venice, where he is going to conduct a 2007 performance of Verdi's super-dramatic Messa da Requiem. Unfortunately, that bored look continues to describe the conductor's manner through most of the performance.

If you know this great work, you'd be amazed at just how slow and uninspired this rendition seems. I've known Maazel for excitement and brisk tempi, especially when he conducted the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra at Benaroya Hall in a 2003 performance of Brahms' first symphony. That event was so dramatic and alive that I called it 'shocking Brahms.' So what happened to make Maazel seem to sabotage this Verdi work?

The cathedral acoustic of San Marco might have made Maazel feel the need for such slow tempi. But I can find no excuse for the absence of passion. Certainly the youthful Symphonica Toscanini seemed more than adequate. Fortunately, the quartet of soloists often brought feeling to their singing, almost redeeming the show.

Especially impressive were young Russian mezzo-soprano Anna Smirnova and Polish bass Rafal Siwek. Smirnova's full-bodied voice brought power and warmth as well as perfect legato to her dramatic reading. Handsome Rafal Siwek sang with concentration and a most attractive Russian-type bass, making his 'Mors stupebit' appropriately frightening. Soprano Norma Fantini warmed up to a fine 'Libera me,' sometimes managing to float soft high notes. Only tenor Francesco Meli was sub-standard, possessing all the notes but lacking any special musicality or expression. He was just there, doing a job, despite the gorgeous music Verdi gave the tenor.

The Coro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino sang with commitment, but the engineers failed to achieve a good balance between chorus and orchestra. Especially in the 'Dies irae,' orchestral details were overwhelmed by the chorus, and the bass drum was scarcely audible at the very moments when it should be making a dramatic statement. In general, dynamic range was limited. The DTS-HD Master Audio track was superior to the PCM stereo but failed to capture the acoustic of the Basilica di San Marco, other than when a brief reverb could be heard after sudden stops in the music.

Daniel Barenboim's recent Blu-ray of this work yields much of the passion missing in this recording with superior sound. My favorite video, despite its age, is the von Karajan disc with an unequaled quartet of soloists.

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.

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