Before being named as Music Director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Riccardo Muti led the orchestra in a performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem. The performance was recorded and is now available for purchase on CSO Resound, the orchestra’s private label. Barbara Frittoli, Olga Borodina, Mario Zeffiri and Ildar Abdrazakov are the featured soloists, all selected by Muti.
Verdi’s main output was in the form of opera. In fact, the Requiem is one of his few compositions which isn’t an opera. After visiting the grave of Alessandro Manzoni, an Italian writer who had recently died, Verdi was inspired to compose the Requiem mass. The result was a masterpiece that combined orchestra, chorus and four solo singers.
Performing Verdi’s Requiem demands a combination of power and delicacy. After all, contextually the masterpiece is a mass about death and the transition of the soul into the afterlife. As people, we fear the afterlife and the possible wrath of God, and that sentiment was effectively composed by Verdi. The Requiem maintains the general structure of the Catholic mass. The text is all in Latin, which during Verdi’s time was the common language used in church services.
When Muti conducted the Verdi Requiem, the local critics praised the performance. From the opening moments, the drama that unfolds successfully takes the listener through an emotional musical journey of sorrow, fear, anger, uncertainty and liberation.
The section that separates the men from the boys is always the “Dies irae” because this is the moment when the deceased must confront the wrath of God. Under Muti’s direction, the ensembles and soloists bestow the fear of facing the almighty upon the listener sending chills down the spine. And it isn’t solely because of the blanket of sound, but because of Muti’s sense of timing. Drama is created by the moments of silence; the breaks that allow the music to breathe and heighten the sense of anticipation.
During the Offertorio (Domine Jesu Christe), Verdi spotlights each of the soloists as they ask God to spare the departed from the fires of hell. The Adagio section demonstrates the expressiveness and virtuosity of the vocalists. Contextually, the singers offer “sacrifices and prayers of praise.” The singers use their masterful vocal control to maintain a pure sound during a pleading, delicate moment. As the section evolves, the soloists’ lines interweave creating a calm, yet focused climax.
In the booklet, there is a brief Q&A with Muti. One of the questions asked is: “What does an orchestra like the Chicago Symphony, which is so often associated with the great Germanic repertory, gain from performing Verdi?” Muti replies by stating, “Playing Verdi teaches musicians how to sing and it also gives them the possibility to realize that every single note, even those that look less important on the page, must be sung.”
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