Viva Verdi!

Verdi Messa de Requiem - quattro pezzi sacri Hungarian State Opera Choir and Orchestra, Naxos, £9.99 (two discs, 126 minutes, DDD)

2001 is Verdi centenary year, so music lovers had best brace themselves for a veritable flood of recordings from the major companies, which, in common with current aggressive marketing practice, are of course all aimed at parting us from our hard earned cash.

Unlike the great JS Bach though, Verdi has not left us several hundred cantatas which every label will feel duty-bound to inflict upon us in a frenzied drive for profit. Mind you, things kicked off to a fairly brisk start, with January seeing the release of Ricardo Chailly's Decca recording of a number of the earlier 'sacred' works - the first in a series of such releases from the excellent Chailly scheduled for release over the coming months.

Celebrated as the most influential exponent of drama per musica, Verdi has had most of his 27 operas hailed as masterpieces of the form. Like Wagner, who was dedicated to perfecting his Gesamtkustwerk (total work of art), the aim was to synthesise music, poetry and drama into a unified whole which would take opera onto a qualitatively higher plane.

Born in the divided Italy of 1813, Verdi was to become the figurehead and, through his proudly patriotic operas, outspoken advocate of Italian self-determination: the scourge of the Austrian censors. Originally christened Joseph-Fortunin-Franà§ois by his parents - his father kept an inn and ran a grocer's store - he began life in French-held Roncole. Subsidised by locals, he was sent to further his musical education in Austrian-controlled Milan. He ended up as a senator in the chamber of deputies, following the realisation of his life-long dream of Italian unification.

'Viva Verdi!' became the rallying cry of a generation of Italian patriots when it dawned that his name was an acronym for 'Vittorio Emmanuele, Re d'Italia' (Victor Emanuel, king of Italy). Beaumarchais, referring to his own work, once remarked: "What is too dangerous to say in words can be sung in music" - a sentiment that the fiery composer took as his own. Nabucco, with its theme of Jewish deliverance, was, rightly, perceived as a political attack on the oppression of the Austrian empire. The famous 'Chorus of the Hebrew slaves' became almost de rigueur at the closing of nationalist rallies and cemented Verdi's reputation as the leading artist of his time.

The censors fumed as a string of political operas met with ever greater acclaim from the Italian public. I Lombardi alla prima crociata, Ernani, I due Foscari, Attila, Macbeth, Luisa Miller and Stiffelio, while provoking continual harassment from the authorities, ensured his musical reputation remained intact. The battles with the censors lasted all the way to 1859 with Un ballo in mashera triggering a rain of condemnation upon the defiant composer. Its plot, concerning the real-life murder of the Swedish king, Gustav III, at a masked ball was mercilessly butchered by the censors, with the king demoted to a duke and the setting shifted from 18th century Stockholm to Puritan Boston.

However, this was the final act in a drama that had lasted his entire career. In 1860, Italy, with the exception of the papal states, finally achieved unification as a kingdom. Its leading architect, count Cavour, was keen to parade the famous Verdi. Reluctantly Verdi agreed to stand for election to the chamber of deputies. Quickly finding he had no stomach for the horse-trading, he played a minimal role in the senate until Cavour's death in 1861 when he resigned his seat.

With some of his best work still to come, the next four decades saw the composition of La forza del destino (1862), Don Carlo (1867), Aida (1871), Messa da Requiem (1874), Otello (1887) and Falstaff (1893).

In 1897 the death of his wife broke his spirit and, growing weaker in health, Verdi died in 1901, having composed nothing in the preceding four years. By this time he had become the most wealthy and renowned composer of the 19th century. However, typical of the man's modesty, the arrangements for his funeral specified only, "One priest, one candle, one cross." It was not to be. A nation mourned and the funeral was a massive event that saw the mercurial genius Arturo Toscanini conducting a huge orchestra at the burial site in the grounds of the Casa di Riposa. Estimates of the cortege are reliably put at a quarter of a million people in attendance, all of whom joined in an incredible rendition of the 'Chorus of the Hebrew slaves'.

If, like me, your taste in opera excludes Verdi, there is still a small amount of marvellous music that deserves your attention, the great Requiem being probably the most popular work among non-Verdians. Dubbed by Hans Von Bulow "the greatest opera Verdi never wrote", the Requiem's unashamedly quasi-operatic form and content possibly still provides the most ambitious and daring setting of a liturgical work to date.

This is not so surprising when one considers Verdi's own agnosticism and the highly personal and political motivations surrounding the composition of the great work. Essentially it is a personal tribute to Alessandro Manzoni, the individual whose literary inspiration did so much to contribute to Italian unification and whose writings so profoundly affected and influenced Verdi.

Gergiev, with Andreas Bocelli (tenor) and the utterly sublime, consistently superb Renée Fleming (soprano), has his own reading appearing in April. A mouth-watering proposition. It almost pains me to say so, but on the evidence of this fabulous Naxos release the chances of it failing to impress have gone up by no small amount. Employing a large-scale, modern orchestra, conductor Pier Giorgio Morandi deploys his substantial forces with great verve and expressiveness (you have to wonder how John Elliot Gardiner commands the adulation he does when for a fraction of the price Morandi can turn in a performance of such quality). Particularly impressive is Morandi's phrasing. Vast, intense sweeps of sound are held together with such accuracy that the tension never lets up. He easily commands our utmost attention for the entire length of the work. Morandi resists the temptation to 'showboat' for the sake of it: tempi are sensibly judged and close attention is paid to dynamic detail.

Of course the musicians at his disposal themselves make the task that much easier. Elena Filipova, virtually unknown, is a soprano of considerable talent. Again, during the liber scriptus, there is no hint of overindulgence, and a disciplined approach to dynamics makes this a particularly impressive moment. She meshes beautifully with Gloria Scalchi, an equally impressive mezzo, in the Agnus dei. A word for the chorus, which breathes in here and lifts the duo in one of the most moving moments of the recording. Eliot-Gardiners' Montverde Choir really could not do any better, and that really is no complaint.

No matter how good the reading, all Verdi Requiems ultimately hang on the success or failure of the Dies irae. Well, here there is an account that is truly shattering. Most thrilling is Morandi's generation of tremendous power and volume with no loss of detail. The kettledrums, for instance, never overwhelm, as is sometimes the case.

Carlo Colombara (base) and Cesar Hernandez (tenor) easily match their opposite numbers, both turning in performances of a remarkably high standard. Indeed one of the most surprising, as well as enjoyable, features of this recording is that it contains so much (relatively) unknown talent.

As an ensemble the principals integrate magnificently. There is a real sense here of artists seeking the music's inner core collectively rather than demonstrating their own, clearly substantial, virtuosity. Morandi is clearly single-minded in his determination to do it his way. There are no pretensions to period performance; just uncompromising and consistently high-quality musicianship. The result is a common vision toward which all aspire beautifully.

There are many, many more good things to say about this release, but you would do better to listen to it. Simply the best modern reading now available.

Harry Paterson