Segerstam’s 1980 Verdi “Requiem”

C210232 cover

VERDI: Messa da Requiem / Júlia Várady, sop; Alexandrina Milcheva, mezzo; Alberto Cupido, ten; Nicola Ghiuselev, bass; ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orch. & Chorus; Leif Segerstam, cond / Orfeo C210232 (live: October 3, 1980, Herzogenburg, Austria)

This, it seems, is the first commercial release of a performance of the Verdi Requiem previously only available on a non-commercial LP pressing issued by the ORF Vienna Orchestra itself.

I recently got into an argument with s friend of mine that I personally didn’t think was something to argue about, that although no one buys an opera, vocal mass or oratorio recording on the basis of the conductor alone, the conductor is the most important person, musically, in such performances. He (or she) sets not only the tempo but the phrasing and articulation of a performance. A good conductor can enhance or ruin a performance by the choices he makes. The singers can ruin it only if they’re bad in one way or another, either vocally or stylistically.

In this performance there was only one singer I’d never heard before, mezzo Alexandrina Milcheva, and she turned out to be quite good. I knew tenor Alberto Cupido as the singer on Magda Olivero’s last, abridged recording of Adriana Lecouvreur, and of course Várady and Ghiuselev were world-famous singers.

As has always been his wont in Italian music (and some German music as well), Segerstam takes generally slower tempi than many of his contemporaries, but he never lets the music drag. Thus the opening “Kyrie” for chorus runs close to six minutes before we get to the soloists, but he always nudges the beat forward. It is lyrical but not drippy, and that is very important in a work like this. Recorded near the dawn of the digital age, the sonics are excellent as are the chorus and orchestra although, as a live performance recorded in a monastery, there’s a lot of natural ambience around the performers. This dulls somewhat the impact of the “Dies irae,” where neither the trumpets nor the bass drum are in good focus, despite his taking a good tempo for this section.

Segerstam accents the music in an interesting way at times, such as in the middle of the “Liber scriptus.” Although Cupido had a good voice, neither he nor Ghiuselev sing with much nuance, which shows in such places as the end of the “Quid sum miser,” the beginning of the “Hostias,” and in much of the “Ingemisco,” though he does sing the latter very well and with feeling. Várady, however, is really superb here, the voice bright and biting and soft and sensuous in turn. Her “Libera me” is simply stupendous.

But with the mushy sound sabotaging the work at every turn, there’s little else to recommend it. For fans of the singers only.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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