Verdi: Messa da Requiem – Staatskapelle Dresden, Christian Thielemann (Profil)

Adorno would slightly backtrack in his later work, Negative Dialects, where he suggested it might have been wrong to
say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poetry – though he would
become even more damning about the colossal existential terror of the guilt
and insanity of its horrors. Adorno’s vision for the survivors of events
such as the Holocaust is almost Kafkaesque; but, one might equally argue
that Paul Celan’s poem Todesfuge says everything that needs to be
said about war and its horror.

Composers who lived through the war have tended, like Adorno, and even the
Romanian-born poet Celan (who wrote largely in German) to focus on the
victims of Nazi oppression: Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw or
Nono’s Ricorda cosi ti hanno fatto in Auschwitz are just a couple
of notable examples. Where composers have taken a view on allied
destruction elsewhere they have particularly centred on Japan and the
nuclear cataclysm: Penderecki’sThrenody to the Victims of Hiroshima and Nono’s Canti di vita e d’amore: sul ponte di Hiroshima. Only the
openly-pacifist Benjamin Britten in his War Requiem could be said
to have taken an entirely universal (though hardly neutral) position on the
pointlessness of war. Richard Strauss, who in Metamorphosen, and
even the Vier Letze Lieder, wrote music which came closer to
elegy, music that looked back into the past through the ruins of the
present. Most German composers have rather avoided tackling the subject of
the destruction of their own cities altogether, perhaps because the subject
is too raw to address.

Dresden was, and remains, one of the clearest examples of a German city
ruined in the same way as the cities which drew in Britten, Penderecki and
Nono – widely accepted today to have been at least indiscriminate, and
probably questionable. Historically, its relationship with music is almost
as old as European classical music itself, though after the war, the
anniversary of its destruction, remembered on a single day, has been
closely defined by an Italian requiem – Verdi’s.

Identification in music for reviewers can be related to the circumstances
of our birth as much as it is to the objectivity of the performances before
us. Striking that balance can sometimes be problematic, however. Questions
of guilt, responsibility – and even Adorno’s premise that one is somehow
corroding the very basis of atonement – can make one extremely wary of even
approaching such a review in the first place. But with a German ancestry –
and connections to Dresden – I wanted to hear and write about Christian
Thielemann’s new recording of Verdi’s Requiem from the distance of
time – and the commemoration of the destruction of this great city –
remembered each year in its annual concert.

Thielemann’s concert of the Requiem is not in itself a one-off
performance. Since 1951, starting with Rudolf Kempe, the Dresden
Staatskapelle and chorus of the Staatsoper has given a concert of Verdi’s Requiem on the 13th February every year on Dresden
Memorial Day – although in recent years a different work has often been
played. (I recall a Missa Solemnis, this year it was Dvo?·k’sStabat Mater and in 2020 it will be Purcell’s Funeral Music for Queen Mary and Mahler’s Tenth.) It has
mostly been the case that these concerts have been played on three nights –
two in the Semperoper, and one in the Frauenkirch. The occasion is marked
by reconciliation and tolerance, of shared hope and peace. Those first
performances under Kempe were played in the shattered Staatstheater – and
the destruction of the city, the memories of the apocalypse of the
firestorm which had swept through it were still fresh – much as they were
for much of mainland Europe and the major cities of Japan and the Far East
at the time. The performances then – as they are now – are premised on
coexistence and not division, on healing and not the wounds of war. Even
when you return to Dresden many decades after the events of the Second
World War pockets of the city show scars of its destruction that may never
be entirely erased; but that is equally common if you walk the streets of
Warsaw or Coventry as well.

Although Christian Thielemann is most closely identified as a conductor
from the Germanic tradition, his immersion into Italian repertoire has been
convincing (Otello was performed by him at least as far back as
1996, and the Quattro Pezzi Sacri has often been programmed as
well). Although this Dresden Verdi Requiem is the earliest one by
him I can recall hearing, it is by no means his only one. It’s true that if
you’re looking for anything resembling an overtly ‘Romantically’ phrased
performance with Italianate warmth you probably need to look elsewhere –
though this Dresden Requiem makes considerably more of a statement
than one performed a year later at the Salzburg Festival. There is
undoubtedly a sense of reverence to it – something which at Easter in
Salzburg 2015 had been replaced by something altogether less fragile and
certainly less spiritual.

The Dresden Staatskapelle is no stranger to Verdi’s Requiem
Sinopoli, in one of his final performances before his death, gave the
Dresden Memorial Concert from the Frauenkirch on 13th February
2001 – a recording which has only ever been issued on a private label.
Christian Thielemann does take a different approach to the work, in part, I
suspect, because the sound of the orchestra can be quite markedly darker
than Sinopoli brought to it – not that he brings much warmth to the Dresden
sound either, especially in the strings which have surprising weight
(Sinopoli, however, has a more lightweight quartet of singers than
Thielemann mustered for this performance). Additionally, in the past there
have been noticeable differences between Profil’s engineering of their CDs
versus the actual broadcasts they have used (Sinopoli’s Ein Heldenleben was virtually ruined by Profil) – but that is
certainly not the case here. The space allowed around the orchestra is
exceptional, the clarity of the playing is crystal clear and there is a
detail and depth to the performance which is faithful to the acoustics of
the Semperoper. Profil haven’t sought to adjust some of the inherent
balance problems between the orchestra and soloists either – if you
sometimes strain to hear Krassimira Stoyanova climb above the orchestra and
choir that’s because she was slightly overwhelmed by both in the
performance. Does this matter? No it doesn’t because although Stoyanova is
still audible at those climaxes it’s what she does with her voice that
matters and there’s a powerful underlying struggle in her phrasing which is

Thielemann’s view of the Requiem is rather similar to Sinopoli’s
in one respect in that both take a dramatic – though that is not to say
operatic – view of this work. There are spiritual overtones (perhaps
undertones would be a better word), but you have to search deeply for them.
Sinopoli is slower at the opening of the ‘Dies Irae’ – those massive
timpani are like rolling thunder; Thielemann sees them more as a shocking,
explosive blast – and it’s rather more terrifying as a result. Some have
criticised Sinopoli for smothering this music, almost choking it, so it
sounds a little underwhelming – but this is not something I particularly
hear in his Dresden Requiem. Thielemann does drive the ‘Dies Irae’
onwards – though, as you might expect from such an experienced Bruckner
conductor, that drive is almost entirely shaped by a singular line of
thinking. It’s easy to fragment the ‘Dies Irae’ – Thielemann doesn’t do
this; the arc in which its span is taken is impressively extended, like a
singular breath that never seems to quite come up for air. This can be
challenging for his soloists – but whether it’s the dark-hued, solid but
monumental ‘Tuba mirum’ of the bass, Georg Zeppenfeld, or the magnificently
rich-toned ‘Ingemisco’ of the tenor, Charles Castronovo, it’s a contrast of
colour that Thielemann achieves as well as the perfect line that never
feels like it’s just stitched together like fragments of the liturgy. The
‘Quid sum miser’ is like a spiral, the mezzo of Marina Prudenskaja such a
beautiful foil to Stoyanova’s soaring soprano. Perhaps the chorus in the
‘Lacrymosa’ sound a touch loud, just occluding the soloists – but as I
suggested earlier this is a performance which gets its strength from the
ambience of its struggle.

There are times you listen to Verdi’s Requiem and everything after
the ‘Dies Irae’ can seem like a slow descent into anti-climax. Sinopoli was
never one to do this – even in the couple of recordings we have of his
which he made outside his Dresden concert – and Thielemann doesn’t either.
There is a change in the pace of the work, though it’s possibly
even harder to keep a good performance on track. I can’t really fault the
way in which Thielemann balances the orchestra and double chorus through
the ‘Sanctus’ – the sense of divisi has remarkable clarity. You
get this, too, in the ‘Agnus Dei’ where Prudenskaja and Stoyanova are in
such perfect harmony with the chorus – the orchestra just weighty and rich
enough so it wraps like a shroud around the voices. If many conductors see
the ‘Libera me’ as a climax to the Requiem, Thielemann views it as
a true coda – not the actual end of it, but the complete summation of
everything that has come before it. If you listen to the power – and
reverence – behind Thielemann’s ‘Libera me’, in the closing bars you could
be listening to the final pages of Bruckner’s Fifth or Eighth Symphonies.
This is, in part, what makes this Verdi Requiem rather special and

I think this is one of those performances which can stand alongside some of
the great recordings of the past – de Sabata, Cantelli, Giulini – and,
perhaps, Sinopoli in Dresden, too. It’s beautifully sung, conducted and
recorded – I’m not sure you could ask for much more.

Marc Bridle

Verdi: Requiem

Krassimira Stoyanova (soprano), Marina Prudenskaja (mezzo), Charles
Castronovo (tenor), Georg Zeppenfeld (bass), Christian Thielemann
(conductor), Staatskapelle Dresden, Dresden State Opera Chorus.

Recorded 13th February 2014 at Semperoper, Dresden.

product_title=Verdi: Requiem: Edition Staatskapelle Dresden – Volume 46, PROFIL PH16075 [43.43 + 37.37]
product_by=A review by Marc Bridle