Verdi Requiem: Renee Fleming, soprano

CD REVIEWS

Olga Borodina...

May 03, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Verdi

Requiem: Renee Fleming, soprano; Olga Borodina, mezzo-soprano; Andrea Bocelli, tenor; Ildebrando D'Arcangelo, bass; Kirov Orchestra and Chorus; Valery Gergiev, conductor. (Philips 289 468 079-2)

To this we've come - a serious artistic product severely compromised by commercial considerations. All right, we've been there already, many times. But it's dispiriting to find a major record company jeopardizing a performance of Verdi's Requiem, one of the supreme monuments of Western music, by inserting into the mix pop tenor sensation Andrea Bocelli. His participation is doubly regrettable given the considerable attractions in the rest of the recording.

Valery Gergiev delivers the visceral excitement he is noted for, making the most of every opportunity Verdi provides for musical, emotional and purely theatrical effect. It would be hard to extract more hair-raising drama out of the "Dies Irae," for example; the conductor gets the earthy Kirov Chorus to produce a shattering sound and the top-notch Kirov Orchestra to make a mighty noise (the bass drum strokes sound like cannon fire). The "Sanctus" becomes downright giddy, a brief explosion of hope and joy in the midst of all the worries and grief.

Throughout, Gergiev builds climactic points with masterful tension and fire; he also can be highly persuasive in lyrical passages, even if the tautness never really relaxes much. The result sounds like a live performance, not a five-day recording project.

The chorus, with its marvelous Russian basses, makes a darker, deeper sound than is normally encountered in this music. Whatever the choristers may lack in polish here and there is more than compensated for in their richness of feeling. The Kirov Orchestra likewise rises to the occasion potently.

Renee Fleming sings, as usual, gorgeously. She also adds a determined edge of drama to the concluding "Libera me"; some listeners may find it affected, but it works for me. Olga Borodina uses her lush, richly communicative mezzo superbly. Ildebrando D'Arcangelo sounds a bit lightweight, but his bass blossoms sufficiently where it counts.

Try as he does - and there are some very expressive, nicely formed phrases along the way to make up for the thin, bleaty ones - Bocelli simply cannot stand up to the competition. And I don't just mean all the venerable tenors who have recorded the work in the past. Bocelli can't hold a vocal cord to most of the tenors who are out there today serving this music, such as Vinson Cole, whose extraordinarily ethereal performance of the Requiem a few months ago with the Washington Opera, Placido Domingo conducting, still lingers in the ear.

Bocelli's pop mannerisms and technical shortcomings won't bother his fans, of course. And if enough of those fans snatch up this release, I suppose the tenor's first "Aida" will be just around the corner. Can't wait.

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Rossini

Petite Messe Solennelle: Krassimira Stoyanova, soprano; Birgit Remmert, alto; Steve Davislim, tenor; Hanno Muller-Brachmann, bass; Philip Mayers and Phillip Moll, pianists; Ryoko Morooka, harmonium; RIAS-Kammerchor; Marcus Creed, conductor. (Harmonia Mundi HMC 901724)

Rossini famously referred to this marvelous setting of the Latin Mass as "the last mortal sin of my old age." And on the last page of the score, he penned a "Dear God" note, asking whether "this poor, little Mass" is really sacred music, or damned. "I was born for the opera buffa, as you know," he wrote. "A little knowledge, a bit of heart, that is all. Therefore, be praised and grant me paradise."

Surely, Rossini gained admittance, with extra points for chutzpah and a sense of humor. The quality of the Petite Messe Solennelle had to help, too. This is one of Rossini's most lovable, though one of the least appreciated, scores. The cheeky title alone is enough to spark interest - it translates "Little Solemn Mass." At about 80 minutes in length, it's not exactly little. And with some of the bounciest tunes Rossini ever wrote, it's not always solemn, either.

Composed for the dedication of a French nobleman's private chapel in 1864, the Mass has a most unusual accompaniment - two pianos and a harmonium (a distant cousin to the organ). Rossini was later persuaded to provide an orchestral version of the score, but the original is the one that shines brightest, as vibrantly demonstrated on this new release.

There is a sense of commitment and conviction throughout the performance. Marcus Creed conducts with keen sensitivity to Rossini's large and small gestures alike. He coaxes from the 37 choristers of the RIAS-Kammerchor a clean, bright, smoothly balanced sound. Their account of the delicious "Cum Sancto Spiritu" passage of the "Gloria" practically dances along with a contagious vitality; more reflective moments are likewise approached with admirable attention to detail.

The well-matched soloists are attuned to the operatic contours of the music, but ever respectful of the religious texts. Birgit Remmert's elegant delivery of the "Crucifixus" and tenor Steve Davislim's warm-toned delivery of "Domine Deus" are among the highlights.

The excellent pianists and harmonium player, all using period instruments from around the time of the work's creation, complete the attributes of this winning disc. For those who may know Rossini primarily from "The Barber of Seville" or the "William Tell" Overture, this loving account of the "Petite Messe Solennelle" should be quite an ear-opener. Those who already love the work will find it a valuable testament to the music's unusual charms.

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