VERDI:   Sacred Pieces:  Stabat Mater. Laudi alla Vergine Maria.  Te Deum, Ave Maria (1889)  Ave Maria (1880)  "Ave Maria" from Otello, Act IV (1887)  "Libera me, Domine" from Messa per Rossini.
Carmela Remigio, soprano; Chorus and Orchestra of the St. Cecilia Academy of Rome/Myung-Whun Chung, cond.

DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 469 075 (F) (DDD) TT:  62:56


There haven't been many recordings of these Sacred Pieces from Verdi's last years, but most have been outstanding, either as performances or as recordings. More than half a century ago Arturo Toscanini claimed the clamorous Te Deum for his own (RCA issued it on an LP with the Prologue in Heaven from Boito's Mefistofele that's almost never been out of the catalog). Robert Shaw prepared the chorus, and before his death added Stabat Mater, Laudi alla Vergine Maria and Ave Maria on a Telarc disc of Atlanta origin.

Since its first appearance early on in the stereo era, Carlo Maria Giulini's London Philharmonia version has been considered the pacesetter, although currently it is available only in an EMI two-disc package with the "Manzoni" Messa da Requiem, forever flawed as an overcut master-recording. Riccardo Muti did a version in the '80s available only in England today. Sir Georg Solti on London with the late Margaret Hillis' magnificent Chicago Symphony Chorus is out of print; but not—ironically —crude one from Zubin Mehta's Los Angeles years, currently back as a second-side filler for the controversial Reiner/Vienna Requiem recorded in 1960 in a newly-issued "Decca Legend"set. Oh yes, there's John Eliot Gardiner's hypertensive statement in a Philips set, with an unpersuasive Requiem featuring his orchestra of early 19th-century instruments.

This new one? First class, with the bonus of two additional Ave Maria settings: a simple one from 1880 for soprano and strings; plus Desdemona's prayer (minus the "Willow Song," thank you God and DGG) from the last act of Otello. Conductor Myung-Whun Chung also gives us Verdi's 1869 Libera me, Domine, composed for a proposed memorial Messa per Rossini, which was supposed to have been a collaboration with 12 colleagues who dropped out. In 1874, Verdi expanded it—the soprano part especially—for his Manzoni Requiem, but this original is nonetheless interesting.

Chung revealed his affinity for Italian sacred music as a last-hour substitute for the ailing Giulini in a Los Angeles Phil performance of Rossini's Stabat Mater during the 1980s—more vibrant, I thought at the time, than Giulini's was likely to have been. Now he does wonders (if not quite a miracle) with the Santa Cecilia Chorus and Orchestra of Rome, which DGG's technical team has blessed with a superb recording, despite their characteristic extremes of loud and soft. The one merely serviceable participant is Chung's soprano soloist, Carmela Remigio—to be sure musicianly, but lyric rather than a spinto, with a fast vibrato and three registers that need to be soldered by a teaching taskmaster. Even so, recommended for all who cherish the Sacred Pieces as Verdi's publisher, Casa Ricordi, named them over the elderly composer's objections. Mehta is a non-contestant; Giulini sui generis and technically dated, Shaw earnest but no Toscanini temperamentally, and Gardiner expressively overparted.

R.D. (Feb. 2001)