Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Review: Verdi - Requiem - Karajan - 1984 - DVD, SONY

Karajan's best rendition of Verdi's Requiem, bar none

This is essentially the same recording as has been issued at least twice on CD. Please note that the early release sounds different than the one in the Karajan Gold series. Which one you prefer, like everything else, is a matter of taste. Personally, I like the older issue a little better. The remastering has improved the clarity but something of the depth and the dynamic range has been lost.

The present video recording was made in Vienna during the first half of 1984. It is a studio recording, not a live one. There is an invited audience in the Great Hall of Musikverein, but there also are numerous close-ups of woodwinds and brass which must have been shot separately. There may be slight differences between the audio and the video version, but to notice them one has to miss the best the music can offer. In either case, the sound is impeccable, with excellent "windows" between choir, soloists and orchestra. So, in the case of the video recording, is the camera work.

This recording simply begs for comparison with Karajan's first video attempt, made in La Scala in 1967 for Unitel. Well, to cut the long story short, the 1984 film is embarrassingly superior in terms of almost everything: picture and sound quality, camera work, Karajan's interpretation, the choir's performance. The earlier film looks and sounds amateurish in comparison, just like La Scala looks drab in comparison with the Great Hall of Musikverein. The camera work is especially dismal: shaky, meandering, out of joint with the music. The direction of Henri-Georges Clouzot is as imaginative as it is misguided. The later film is directed by Karajan himself and he apparently profited from his apprentice years with the Frenchman in the 1960s for, heretic as this may sound to some noir fans, he improved significantly on the earlier result.

The only redeeming feature of the 1967 version are the soloists. Price/Cossotto/Pavarotti/Ghiaurov is obviosuly a better vocal quartet than Tomowa-Sintow/Baltsa/Carreras/Van Dam. But not as much as you might think. Carreras is the only really notable defect of the later recording. By 1984 he already was well on the way of his vocal decline. It's rather painful to listen to his "Ingemisco"; the pianisssimi are ravishing, but the rest is strained and wobbly, certainly not on par with the less technically accomplished but vocally stupendous performance of the young Pavarotti. Jose van Dam has a much smaller voice than Ghiaurov, of course, but he brings off the nobility of "Confutatis" very convincingly. Personally, I rather prefer (in this work at any rate) Tomowa-Sintow's mellifluous tone to Price's somewhat strident one. Cossotto is a clear-cut winner, not least because she is way prettier than Baltsa which does matter on video, but the latter is no slouch either.

I have never seen the earlier SONY DVD and I don't know how this new edition compares to it. But I surmise the dubious sound processing generally employed in this series (playing and re-recording at the orignal venues) worked rather well in this case. Considering that this new edition is cheap and still in print, it is clearly preferrable to the older one. The presentation is, of course, less lavish, but that's to be expected. As suggested by other reviewers on Amazon, however, you should be on your guard if you order this from North America.

As fas as Karajan's audio recordings are concerned, the 1984 one is again without any serious competition. There is an impressive 1949 live performance from Salzburg, but the sound is at best limited. This is no problem if you're used to historical recordings, in fact this one is better than many others from its time, but if you are not, or if you are new to Verdi's Requiem, you'd better look elsewhere. Karajan's 1972 studio recording is surely among the worst in his entire discography: dry sound, bland interpretation, Ghiaurov on an off-day, Cossutta unable to cope with his part at all.

In short, in 1984 Karajan surpassed himself as far as Verdi's Requiem is concerned. The work was a lifelong favourite of his (he first conducted it in 1935), but only in the end of his life could he give it his very best. We are fortunate that it was caught on both audio and video. If you must choose but one version, do choose the film. It is visually splendid and in many ways illuminating; neither can be said about the earlier recording with La Scala, in which, moreover, the orchestra and the choir, for one reason or another, are distinctly inferior. Karajan buffs will want to have both videos, of course, and so would voice connoisseurs. But for sheer grandeur coupled with great subtlety, the 1984 rendition with Tomowa-Sintow/Baltsa/Carreras/Van Dam, together with two choirs (Wiener Singverein and the one of the Sofia National Opera), is the absolute winner.

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