Gramophone, November 2013
Mike Ashman
Verdi, Messa da Requiem
Barenboim's Requiem live from two Milan concerts
Barenboim has made a habit of achieving what others just talk of — whether it's giving the entry of Wagner's Rheingold gods into Valhalla a genuinely pompous hollow ring or, as here, making music drama out of the score that Hans von Billow dismissed as 'opera in church costume'. Despite the presence of the Italian chorus and orchestra — both on committed good form — of the conductor's own house, this performance, exciting and occasionally thrilling though it is, is not remotely Italian. From that slurred opening string descent onwards, Barenboim is going somewhere else — towards a drama in which tempi are governed exclusively by atmosphere. It's a 'through-composed' linked-up performance, paced with a dramatic curve that makes even the punchiest Italian-led ones — Muti's watershed moment with the Philharmonia (Warner) plus the seven or so Toscaninis (numerous labels) — feel like number opera missing the dialogue in between. One could fairly describe the score's expressive markings here as treated symphonically rather than vocally but the pianist/conductor brings them off with his own conviction.

The non-Italian soloists are in good fearless voice and aurally well integrated into this concept. Kaufmann's robusto Italian seems more fully realised than some of his Italian aria recordings. Pape feels very comfortable with emotion on the concert stage. Garanca makes much of the mezzo's beau role and sounds well with Harteros in the 'Recordare'.
Since the Solti Vienna performance first blew Giulini (technically) off the racks at the end of the 1960s, Decca has been good at recording this work and they haven't got worse over the years. In the first LP era the clash on record was between the RCA Toscanini (now best on Pristine), one-time EMI's first Giulini (but, sadly, it's never sounded good) and the first Solti (brave and bold, starrily cast, loud sound). Since then the competition has reached almost ridiculous proportions. I couldn't live without that first Muti and at least three Toscaninis (BBC Testament, Scala and RCA) but I'd smuggle in the present newcomer alongside Sold for its cast and Barenboim's line through the piece.

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