13 Mar 2010

Berliner Philharmoniker
Mariss Jansons

Krassimira Stoyanova, Marina Prudenskaja, David Lomeli, Stephen Milling

  • Giuseppe Verdi
    Messa da Requiem (95 min.)

    Krassimira Stoyanova Soprano, Marina Prudenskaja Mezzo-Soprano, David Lomeli Tenor, Stephen Milling Bass, Bavarian Radio Chorus, Peter Dijkstra Chorus Master

At the beginning of the 1970s Herbert von Karajan invited the young Mariss Jansons to come to Berlin to be his assistant but the Soviet authorities would not permit it – a “terrible disappointment” for Jansons. In the meantime, the Cold War is over and the Latvian conductor is now a regular and much valued guest with the Berliner Philharmoniker. In this concert, he conducts Verdi’s Messa da Requiem.

Probably nowhere else do the worlds of the opera house and the concert hall overlap more seamlessly than in this Requiem – the melos, fury and sentiment of Italian music theatre are refined with all the means of symphonic choral and orchestral sound. At the time of its premiere, this concept irritated some, yet even Brahms – not exactly a fan of Verdi – opined: “Only a genius could write such a work.”

For this performance the solo parts were taken by four outstanding young opera singers. They were joined by the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks – a “deluxe ensemble” (New York Times), of which Jansons has been the principal conductor since 2003.

Church or Theatre?

Thoughts on Verdi’s Messa da Requiem

Giuseppe Verdi wrote 32 operas, if you count reworkings and new versions. There are also a few orchestral pieces, songs and cantatas as well as a string quartet in his catalogue of works, mostly created for specific occasions rather than out of artistic compulsion. In addition, there are a scant dozen scores belonging to the genre of sacred music. Verdi was quite candid about his anti-clerical sentiments, and he both spoke and wrote of himself as an agnostic. In a letter to his wife Giuseppina, he even admitted to being an atheist. He felt induced to approach sacred music at the beginning of his career, when it was still a student’s obligation, but then not again until his mid-50s.

Verdi had more success with the Messa da Requiem, which he completed at the age of 61, than he ever had with any of his operas. He himself conducted its first performance on 22 May 1874. Venue of the premiere: Milan’s acoustically sympathetic church of San Marco. The performers: four vocal soloists, a mixed chorus of some 120 singers, and an orchestra of over 100 players. A convoluted genesis preceded the performance. Five and a half years earlier in Paris, on 13 November 1868, Gioachino Rossini – Europe’s opera god during the first third of the century – died at the age of 76. Only four days later, Verdi submitted the following proposal to his publisher Tito Ricordi: “To honour his memory I would wish the most distinguished Italian composers to compose a Requiem Mass.” Ricordi immediately mustered a commission to divide the official text of the Roman Catholic liturgy of the Mass for the Dead into 13 sections and to allocate them to the same number of composers. Within a few months a score was produced which assembled a representative phalanx of Italian masters. Verdi had reserved for himself the final responsory “Libera me”, the prayer for salvation, whose words are not necessarily an integral part of the liturgy for the dead. The pasticcio score was finished punctually in September 1869 – the prime precondition for a Rossini memorial concert on the first anniversary of his death. Verdi wanted it to be given in Bologna, the city he regarded as Rossini’s true spiritual home. But his initiative unexpectedly foundered on small-mindedness, lack of money and squabbles over authority. The requiem for Rossini disappeared into the archives and had to wait nearly 120 years for its resurrection – in 1988 in Stuttgart.

Verdi felt his days of composing for the theatre were over. After Don Carlo and Aida he intended to write no more operas, and thoughts of latecomers like Otello or Falstaff were still in the remote future. He did, however, have occasion to recall his contribution to the requiem for Rossini – the “Libera me”. In 1873, at the age of 88, Alessandro Manzoni died, Italy’s most influential writer of the 19th century. A single novel had sufficed to earn him the admiration and veneration of his entire nation: I promessi sposi (The Betrothed), a “Milanese story of the 17th century”, set during the years of oppressive Spanish rule. Manzoni’s death set off a shock wave of mourning in a country that had just shaken off Habsburg rule in the Risorgimento and was only then becoming aware of its unified Italian identity. The political spokesmen and artistic guiding lights of the Risorgimento gathered in the Milanese salon of Countess Clara Maffei, who had arranged a meeting between the poet and the composer (though owing to their mutual high esteem, it was a rather awkward encounter). Verdi experienced the death of the “Saint” as a personal catastrophe. “I shall not come to Milan, for I would not have the heart to attend his funeral,” he wrote to the publisher Giulio Ricordi. And a few days later: “I would like to compose a mass for the dead to be performed next year for the anniversary of Manzoni’s death.”

Verdi began composing the Requiem in summer 1873. The “Libera me” from the Rossini pasticcio, revised, went into the new score. Already contained in that finale, like a sudden alarm, is an episode conjuring up a terrifying apocalypse – a brutally realistic vision of the “Dies irae”, that day on which (in the literal sense of the Greek word “apokalypsis”) nothing remains concealed and no transgression goes unpunished (“quidquid latet apparebit, nil inultum remanebit”). Verdi integrates this horrifying image of the Last Judgment into the central panel of his new Requiem, the sequence “Dies irae”, as an ominously insistent memento mori, a terrible nightmare of the recurring idée fixe that mocks every salvation. Is this sacred or is it secular?

Verdi darkens the opening section, “Requiem aeternam”, with archaising declamation and a subdued minor-mode atmosphere. But on the key phrase “et lux perpetua”, the image of the “perpetual light shining upon them”, he reacts, so to speak, like a man of the theatre, changing to major and introducing the “Kyrie eleison” with a fulsome bel canto tenor solo. But this is not really serious grounds for endorsing that unserious insider’s quip, “Verdi’s most beautiful opera even though there’s no stage”, much less for refuting it. A genuine opera scene, however, did indeed find its way into the Requiem, though completely transformed: the great lament sung by King Philip over the corpse of the Marquis of Posa (intended for the fourth-act finale of the French original version of Don Carlos). In 1867 in Paris, this episode was cut before the premiere – like many other sections of the outsized score. Verdi rescued Philip’s heart-rending melody for use in the concluding section of the “Dies irae”, the “Lacrymosa”. Whether this cantilena is secular in one context but sacred in the other is an unanswerable question and perhaps an idle one.

Is the Requiem, then, perched somewhere between liturgically enhanced opera and sacred music dramatised by operatic gestures? The ostensible issue in this debate has been circulated tirelessly. What, in any event, this supposed opera demonstrates as a non-opera is the fact that Verdi does not resort to the conventional operatic formula: scena – aria – cabaletta. Moreover, he holds himself strictly – not his wont – to the Latin liturgy for the dead and accepts the text as a given (not correcting a librettist or driving him to despair). He also, however, invokes the vividly gestural aspect of his music – its desperate protest against the inexorability of mortality and the absurdity of the notion of salvation – against the conventional understanding of the Latin words. Verdi reconciles liturgy and opera as two sides of the same coin. His mass for the dead is in equal measure secular and sacred theatre. The Requiem ends as it began: at the verge of inaudibility, without hope. No Verdi opera, even the saddest, ends quite like this.

Karl Dietrich Gräwe

Translation: Richard Evidon

Mariss Jansons was born in Riga in 1943 and studied the violin, the piano and conducting at the Leningrad Conservatory, later taking conducting lessons with Swarowsky in Vienna and Karajan in Salzburg. He won the 1971 Herbert von Karajan Conductors’ Competition in Berlin and was immediately appointed Evgeny Mravinsky’s assistant with the Leningrad Philharmonic. He remained associated with the Leningrad Philharmonic until 1999, latterly as permanent guest conductor. From 1979 to 2000 he was principal conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic, which he turned into one of the world’s leading orchestras. From 1992 to 1997 he was principal guest conductor with the London Philharmonic, after which he became music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Since the start of the 2003/2004 season he has been principal conductor of the Bavarian Radio Chorus and Orchestra. In 2004 he assumed a similar role with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam. Mariss Jansons first appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1976 and since then has returned on frequent occasions, most recently in early June 2008, when he conducted works by Shostakovich, Berio and Ravel. Among his many awards are the Hans von Bülow Medal of the Berliner Philharmoniker (2003), a Royal Philharmonic Society Award as “Conductor of the Year” (2004) and honorary membership of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna. He is also an honorary fellow of the Royal Academy of Music in London. In 2006 his native Latvia awarded him the Order of the Three Stars, the country’s highest civilian honour.

The Mexican tenor David Lomeli studied at La Scala’s Accademia di Perfezionamento per Cantanti Lirici and since then has worked with musicians of the eminence of Plácido Domingo, James Conlon, Bruno Rigacci and Eugene Kohn. Central to his repertory are roles in the operas of Verdi, Puccini and Donizetti, including Rodolfo in La bohème, Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor, Macduff in Macbeth and the Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto. He won first prize in the 2006 Operalia Competition established by Plácido Domingo. Among his roles in the current season are Rinuccio in Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi at the San Francisco Opera, where he made his debut in the summer of 2009, singing Alfredo in La traviata under the direction of Donald Runnicles. In 2006 his engagements included an appearance on Spanish television with Montserrat Caballé and concerts in Monterrey in Mexico under the direction of Gustavo Dudamel. In 2008 he sang with the Munich Radio Orchestra at the Kissingen Summer Festival under Lawrence Foster. This is David Lomeli’s debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

The Danish bass Stephen Milling was born in Copenhagen and studied at the city’s Royal Danish Academy of Music. He joined the local Opera Academy in 1991, graduating to the Royal Danish Opera three years later. Since then he has built up a wide-ranging repertory that is currently focused on the operas and music dramas of Wagner. Early successes as Don Fernando in Fidelio at La Scala and as Fasolt (Das Rheingold) and Hunding (Die Walküre) in the Seattle Opera’s 2001 Ring cycle helped to consolidate his international career and led to guest appearances at many of the world’s leading opera houses, notably the Metropolitan Opera, New York, the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, the Opéra National de Paris and the Salzburg Festival. Among the conductors with whom Stephen Milling has worked are Sir Colin Davis, Riccardo Muti, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Lorin Maazel and Sir Simon Rattle. He made his Vienna State Opera debut in 2005 as Gurnemanz in Parsifal, subsequently returning as King Marke in Tristan und Isolde. This is his first appearance as a guest soloist with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Marina Prudenskaya was born in Saint Petersburg and studied with Evgenia Gorokhovskaya at the city’s Conservatory of Music. After two years at the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Academic Music Theatre in Moscow, she became a member of the Nuremberg State Theatre in 2000. Here she worked on many of the roles that make up her extensive repertory, including Cherubino in Le nozze di Figaro, Suzuki in Madama Butterfly, Preziosilla in La forza del destino, Azucena in Il trovatore, the title role in Carmen and Erda in both Das Rheingold and Siegfried. In addition to her many other awards, Marina Prudenskaya won the 2003 ARD Music Competition. From 2005 to 2007 she was a member of the Deutsche Oper in Berlin. Guest engagements have taken her to many other opera houses in Germany and abroad. She has also appeared at both the Aix-en-Provence and Bayreuth Festivals and at the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro. In June 2009 she sang Floßhilde and Siegrune in the Ring at the Palau de les Arts in Valencia under the direction of Zubin Mehta. Since the start of the 2007/2008 season she has been a member of the Stuttgart Opera. This is Marina Prudenskaya’s concert debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Krassimira Stoyanova was born in Bulgaria and initially studied the violin at the Ruse Conservatory, later switching to the violin and singing at the Plovdiv Academy of Music and making her professional stage debut with Sofia Opera in 1995. Since then she has enjoyed a busy career as an opera singer and concert artist. Among the international venues where she has appeared are the Metropolitan Opera, New York, the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, the Deutsche Oper in Berlin, the New Israeli Opera in Tel Aviv, Carnegie Hall, the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, the Salzburg Festival and the Menuhin Festival in Gstaad. Among the conductors with whom she has worked are Riccardo Muti, Sir Colin Davis and Mariss Jansons. Krassimira Stoyanova has been closely associated with the Vienna State Opera since 1998. One of her greatest successes with the company was in October 2005 when she took on the role of Anna in Puccini’s Le villi. In 2007 she made her acclaimed debut with the Bavarian State Opera as Luisa in a new production of Verdi’s Luisa Miller. In October 2009 she was appointed a Kammersängerin by the Vienna State Opera. This is Krassimira Stoyanova’s debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

The Bavarian Radio Chorus was formed in 1946 and is the oldest of the station’s three ensembles. Its artistic fortunes have always gone hand in hand with those of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, whose principal conductor – currently Mariss Jansons – holds the same position with the chorus, working in close association with its chorus master. From 1990 to 2005 the chorus master was Michael Gläser, who transformed the choir into one of the world’s leading ensembles and brought it to international attention. Since 2005 its chorus master has been Peter Dijkstra, who was born in the Netherlands in 1978. Thanks to its homogeneity of timbre and a stylistic versatility that encompasses all periods and genres, the Bavarian Radio Chorus is much sought after by leading orchestras throughout Europe. Since 1998 it has had its own series of subscription concerts at Munich’s Prinzregententheater. The Bavarian Radio Chorus last appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker in May 2008, when it took part in performances of Berlioz’s Te Deum under the direction of Claudio Abbado.

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