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Verdi: Messa da Requiem - Staatskapelle Dresden, Christian Thielemann (Profil)

It has often been the case that the destruction wrought by wars, especially the Second World War, has been treated unevenly by composers. Theodor Adorno’s often quoted remark, from his essay Prisms, that “to write poetry after Auschwitz would be barbaric” - if widely misinterpreted - is limited by its scope and in a somewhat profound way composers have looked on the events of World War II in the same way.

Verdi: Requiem: Edition Staatskapelle Dresden - Volume 46, PROFIL PH16075 [43.43 + 37.37]

A review by Marc Bridle

 

Adorno would slightly backtrack in his later work, Negative Dialects, where he suggested it might have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poetry - though he would become even more damning about the colossal existential terror of the guilt and insanity of its horrors. Adorno’s vision for the survivors of events such as the Holocaust is almost Kafkaesque; but, one might equally argue that Paul Celan’s poem Todesfuge says everything that needs to be said about war and its horror.

Composers who lived through the war have tended, like Adorno, and even the Romanian-born poet Celan (who wrote largely in German) to focus on the victims of Nazi oppression: Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw or Nono’s Ricorda cosi ti hanno fatto in Auschwitz are just a couple of notable examples. Where composers have taken a view on allied destruction elsewhere they have particularly centred on Japan and the nuclear cataclysm: Penderecki’sThrenody to the Victims of Hiroshima and Nono’s Canti di vita e d’amore: sul ponte di Hiroshima. Only the openly-pacifist Benjamin Britten in his War Requiem could be said to have taken an entirely universal (though hardly neutral) position on the pointlessness of war. Richard Strauss, who in Metamorphosen, and even the Vier Letze Lieder, wrote music which came closer to elegy, music that looked back into the past through the ruins of the present. Most German composers have rather avoided tackling the subject of the destruction of their own cities altogether, perhaps because the subject is too raw to address.

Dresden was, and remains, one of the clearest examples of a German city ruined in the same way as the cities which drew in Britten, Penderecki and Nono - widely accepted today to have been at least indiscriminate, and probably questionable. Historically, its relationship with music is almost as old as European classical music itself, though after the war, the anniversary of its destruction, remembered on a single day, has been closely defined by an Italian requiem - Verdi’s.

Identification in music for reviewers can be related to the circumstances of our birth as much as it is to the objectivity of the performances before us. Striking that balance can sometimes be problematic, however. Questions of guilt, responsibility - and even Adorno’s premise that one is somehow corroding the very basis of atonement - can make one extremely wary of even approaching such a review in the first place. But with a German ancestry - and connections to Dresden - I wanted to hear and write about Christian Thielemann’s new recording of Verdi’s Requiem from the distance of time - and the commemoration of the destruction of this great city - remembered each year in its annual concert.

Thielemann’s concert of the Requiem is not in itself a one-off performance. Since 1951, starting with Rudolf Kempe, the Dresden Staatskapelle and chorus of the Staatsoper has given a concert of Verdi’s Requiem on the 13th February every year on Dresden Memorial Day - although in recent years a different work has often been played. (I recall a Missa Solemnis, this year it was Dvořák’sStabat Mater and in 2020 it will be Purcell’s Funeral Music for Queen Mary and Mahler’s Tenth.) It has mostly been the case that these concerts have been played on three nights - two in the Semperoper, and one in the Frauenkirch. The occasion is marked by reconciliation and tolerance, of shared hope and peace. Those first performances under Kempe were played in the shattered Staatstheater - and the destruction of the city, the memories of the apocalypse of the firestorm which had swept through it were still fresh - much as they were for much of mainland Europe and the major cities of Japan and the Far East at the time. The performances then - as they are now - are premised on coexistence and not division, on healing and not the wounds of war. Even when you return to Dresden many decades after the events of the Second World War pockets of the city show scars of its destruction that may never be entirely erased; but that is equally common if you walk the streets of Warsaw or Coventry as well.

Although Christian Thielemann is most closely identified as a conductor from the Germanic tradition, his immersion into Italian repertoire has been convincing (Otello was performed by him at least as far back as 1996, and the Quattro Pezzi Sacri has often been programmed as well). Although this Dresden Verdi Requiem is the earliest one by him I can recall hearing, it is by no means his only one. It’s true that if you’re looking for anything resembling an overtly ‘Romantically’ phrased performance with Italianate warmth you probably need to look elsewhere - though this Dresden Requiem makes considerably more of a statement than one performed a year later at the Salzburg Festival. There is undoubtedly a sense of reverence to it - something which at Easter in Salzburg 2015 had been replaced by something altogether less fragile and certainly less spiritual.

The Dresden Staatskapelle is no stranger to Verdi’s Requiem - Sinopoli, in one of his final performances before his death, gave the Dresden Memorial Concert from the Frauenkirch on 13th February 2001 - a recording which has only ever been issued on a private label. Christian Thielemann does take a different approach to the work, in part, I suspect, because the sound of the orchestra can be quite markedly darker than Sinopoli brought to it - not that he brings much warmth to the Dresden sound either, especially in the strings which have surprising weight (Sinopoli, however, has a more lightweight quartet of singers than Thielemann mustered for this performance). Additionally, in the past there have been noticeable differences between Profil’s engineering of their CDs versus the actual broadcasts they have used (Sinopoli’s Ein Heldenleben was virtually ruined by Profil) - but that is certainly not the case here. The space allowed around the orchestra is exceptional, the clarity of the playing is crystal clear and there is a detail and depth to the performance which is faithful to the acoustics of the Semperoper. Profil haven’t sought to adjust some of the inherent balance problems between the orchestra and soloists either - if you sometimes strain to hear Krassimira Stoyanova climb above the orchestra and choir that’s because she was slightly overwhelmed by both in the performance. Does this matter? No it doesn’t because although Stoyanova is still audible at those climaxes it’s what she does with her voice that matters and there’s a powerful underlying struggle in her phrasing which is remarkable.

Thielemann’s view of the Requiem is rather similar to Sinopoli’s in one respect in that both take a dramatic - though that is not to say operatic - view of this work. There are spiritual overtones (perhaps undertones would be a better word), but you have to search deeply for them. Sinopoli is slower at the opening of the ‘Dies Irae’ - those massive timpani are like rolling thunder; Thielemann sees them more as a shocking, explosive blast - and it’s rather more terrifying as a result. Some have criticised Sinopoli for smothering this music, almost choking it, so it sounds a little underwhelming - but this is not something I particularly hear in his Dresden Requiem. Thielemann does drive the ‘Dies Irae’ onwards - though, as you might expect from such an experienced Bruckner conductor, that drive is almost entirely shaped by a singular line of thinking. It’s easy to fragment the ‘Dies Irae’ - Thielemann doesn’t do this; the arc in which its span is taken is impressively extended, like a singular breath that never seems to quite come up for air. This can be challenging for his soloists - but whether it’s the dark-hued, solid but monumental ‘Tuba mirum’ of the bass, Georg Zeppenfeld, or the magnificently rich-toned ‘Ingemisco’ of the tenor, Charles Castronovo, it’s a contrast of colour that Thielemann achieves as well as the perfect line that never feels like it’s just stitched together like fragments of the liturgy. The ‘Quid sum miser’ is like a spiral, the mezzo of Marina Prudenskaja such a beautiful foil to Stoyanova’s soaring soprano. Perhaps the chorus in the ‘Lacrymosa’ sound a touch loud, just occluding the soloists - but as I suggested earlier this is a performance which gets its strength from the ambience of its struggle.

There are times you listen to Verdi’s Requiem and everything after the ‘Dies Irae’ can seem like a slow descent into anti-climax. Sinopoli was never one to do this - even in the couple of recordings we have of his which he made outside his Dresden concert - and Thielemann doesn’t either. There is a change in the pace of the work, though it’s possibly even harder to keep a good performance on track. I can’t really fault the way in which Thielemann balances the orchestra and double chorus through the ‘Sanctus’ - the sense of divisi has remarkable clarity. You get this, too, in the ‘Agnus Dei’ where Prudenskaja and Stoyanova are in such perfect harmony with the chorus - the orchestra just weighty and rich enough so it wraps like a shroud around the voices. If many conductors see the ‘Libera me’ as a climax to the Requiem, Thielemann views it as a true coda - not the actual end of it, but the complete summation of everything that has come before it. If you listen to the power - and reverence - behind Thielemann’s ‘Libera me’, in the closing bars you could be listening to the final pages of Bruckner’s Fifth or Eighth Symphonies. This is, in part, what makes this Verdi Requiem rather special and unique.

I think this is one of those performances which can stand alongside some of the great recordings of the past - de Sabata, Cantelli, Giulini - and, perhaps, Sinopoli in Dresden, too. It’s beautifully sung, conducted and recorded - I’m not sure you could ask for much more.

Marc Bridle

Verdi: Requiem

Krassimira Stoyanova (soprano), Marina Prudenskaja (mezzo), Charles Castronovo (tenor), Georg Zeppenfeld (bass), Christian Thielemann (conductor), Staatskapelle Dresden, Dresden State Opera Chorus.

Recorded 13th February 2014 at Semperoper, Dresden.

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