Giuseppe Verdi was not the most devout composer of his time, but in Italy he was the most popular. When Rossini died, Verdi set about organising a requiem in the older master’s honour. That project foundered, and Verdi’s Libera me found its way into his full Requiem, written in 1873 in memory of Alessandro Manzoni.
From the start, Verdi’s Requiem was more about public than private grief. It is operatic in style and scope – indeed, three of the original soloists sang the leads in the European premiere of Aida. Some conductors try to emphasise the spiritual side of the work, but Verdi’s Requiem is a matter of blood and guts as much as life and death. The chorus’s doomed Requiem aeternam is suffused with the portent of high tragedy. The opening of the Dies irae, with its drum whacks and shattering minor chords, is as tempestuous as Otello’s shipwreck, while the mezzo’s Liber scriptus is direr than any curse hurled out by a gypsy fortune-teller.
Muti, an opera conductor par excellence, understands this, and the Chicago Orchestra have a reputation for piling on the decibels when required. The soloists are strong, only lacking an Italianate warmth (apart from Borodina). Frittoli can be wobbly, and Aborazakov oversings above a forte – the downside of live recording, where the singers’ priority is to make themselves heard. These are minor quibbles: overall, Muti’s is a performance with a sharp feeling for drama.