Reviews for IPCD 1068-2
BRAHMS: EIN DEUTSCHES REQIEUM 1935
Philharmonic-Symphony Society of New York
BRAHMS Ein deutsches Requiem (1). Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel, op. 24 (2) (orch. Rubbra). Piano Concerto No. 2 (3) • Arturo Toscanini, cond; (1) Elisabeth Rethberg (sop); (1) Friedrich Schorr (bs bar); (3) Vladimir Horowitz (pn); (1) Schola Cantorum; (1) Philharmonic S Society of NY; (2) NBC SO; (3) Lucerne Festival o • Immortal Performances mono 1068 (2 CDs: 144:48) Live: New York 13/10/1935, 21/07/1939; (3) Lucerne 08/29/1939 – Ian Carson in conversation with Manoug Parikian
November / December 2016
Arturo Toscanini’s penultimate season as music director of the Philharmonic Symphony Society of New York, as it was then styled, included programming both substantial and unusual. Despite the rigors of economic depression, a four-week Brahms cycle was presented in February and March, and, at the end of April, Beethoven’s Missa solemnis. World renowned soloists graced the Carnegie Hall stage, and for the choral works the superb Schola Cantorum under the direction of Hugh Ross, then early in his lengthy and distinguished tenure.
Immortal Performances has previously issued the other items from the Brahms cycle (IP 1025-4, discussed in Fanfare 38:2 by Colin Clarke). Because there was no professional recording of those concerts (the four CDs total just under five hours of music), there was only so much restorer Richard Caniell could do, and those priceless performances require a good deal of forbearance in the listening. The German Requiem here is more solid and realistic in sound, but demands attentive listening and some few details must be taken on faith. (The Brahms/Rubbra Variations are in good 1939 Studio 8H sound—better than many 8H offerings.) That attention will be well repaid, for this Requiem performance is self-recommending: It is, to my ear, the most compelling performance I have ever heard of a work which has been central to my listening repertory for over six decades. This broadcast of Brahms’s greatest choral work has never before been available on disc. It is a premiere which is perhaps the jewel in the crown of releases from this label to honor the 150th anniversary of the conductor’s birth.
To my best knowledge, the German Requiem had not been heard at the Society’s concerts since Wilhelm Furtwängler ended his second (and final) New York season in the spring of 1927. Although the German conductor had a mixed reception in Manhattan, his final concert pair stirred the press to great praise. One imagines that the passage of eight seasons aroused great interest and expectation in the 1935 audiences. As suggested above, no expense was spared: the area’s finest chorus, the world’s most famous German-born bass-baritone, and for her single solo, a German soprano noted for the perfection of her tonal emission. Indeed, during this season, when she sang both Brahms and Beethoven under his baton, Toscanini declared Rethberg the finest singer in the world.
No one expected this concert performance of the Requiem to be available for general hearing. The Toscanini Estate consigned this item and many others to the Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives in New York City, and it had remained there for some time. Caniell was able to persuade those responsible for the estate to consider restoration, but when he heard the transcription, it seemed an almost impossible undertaking—the sonic equivalent of cleaning the Augean Stables. Caniell has told me in correspondence that this restoration is the most difficult technical challenge he has had to date. In addition to two full remasterings, I have been enabled to hear over a dozen samples of “disaster” spots in the original. In addition to the usual obstacles inherent in dealing with old broadcasts such as balance, drop out, and audio interference, this transcription was afflicted with a sizzling overlay as if a sonic frying were taking place. The restoration process has overcome that to the point where we hear a realistic presentation of choral and orchestral tone. Between June and July of this year, Caniell was able to effect significant improvements over the first disc I was sent. To my ear, and I believe motivated listeners will agree with me, one can hear in this release a performance for the ages.
What do I mean by such an encomium? I think it is generally agreed that probably the most important single characteristic of Toscanini’s performing style is the almost unequalled intensity he brought to his music-making. There are times when, to some, that intensity seems more than the music can bear. In some works he strikes some listeners as too hard driving, and the complaint “too fast” is leveled. But, Toscanini was not always “fast” and, in particular, was not always “faster” in his late years. His total elapsed time in the “Eroica” did not change over the years of which we have recorded record of his way with the piece, nor the Brahms Third. His “Organ” Symphony is far more deliberate than most. He conducted the slowest Parsifal at Bayreuth—a record that stood half a century after he left the Green Hill. Speed is not of itself a measure of intensity. But a sine qua non is tension.
This performance of the German Requiem is unequalled in my experience for the tension that Toscanini holds throughout, and which he builds to almost unbearable levels at certain points. It may be coincidental that this performance is one of the slowest I know. Including very brief pauses be- tween movements, actual playing time is a hair over 77 minutes. Toscanini’s 1943 NBC performance (in English) is five or six minutes faster, but still not fast in absolute terms. Furtwängler took a hair over 80 minutes in Stockholm and a hair under in Vienna. In my favorite studio recordings, Kempe takes just over 76, Klemperer just above 69, and Walter about 63 minutes. Mengelberg’s famous pre-war performance clocks in at about 65 and 1/2 minutes. What I sense in this 1935 concert performance is not whether it is fast or slow, but a sense often of time standing still—stasis in the most positive sense of the term—and then, at several points, of the great conductor letting go and releasing from his forces an incredible burst of energy.
Some conductors (Walter notably, and most effectively) emphasize the lyricism of the piece, particularly the first two sections. Mengelberg is a bit less reserved than Walter, but essentially lyrical. Kempe, with broader tempos, does not discount lyricism but is more rhapsodic at times. Klemperer is a bit more granitic, as one would expect, but never slow, and thanks to his stern approach he is the only conductor I’ve heard to equal Toscanini in the big moments.
The first two sections are, quite simply, musically and dramatically overwhelming. I have a mental image of Toscanini holding reins, holding back the inherent surge of the music. Like a pressure cooker occasionally releasing steam (I am mixing metaphors, shamelessly!) he builds the first section to a climax, but then for 10 minutes deliberately understates the second movement—until he finally lets go and at 10:45, even with the inherent sonic limitations, the top blows off, and those imaginary horses are in full gallop. As with other great performers (in my personal pantheon, Callas, Busch, Szigeti, Schnabel, Furtwängler) what we hear in this Toscanini performance, as in so many of his greatest efforts, is an over-arching control of line, the sense that from the first notes, the conductor knew where he was headed.
Schorr is in superb voice in both of his solos and is quite well positioned with respect to the micro- phone(s). His depth of expression, particularly in his second appearance, is most moving. Only George London with Walter, in my experience, equals him in that passage. Rethberg fully justifies Toscanini’s description. She is not quite as proximate to the mike as her colleague, but comes through. This music has been sung and recorded by most of the great lyric sopranos of my time. I am devoted (in purely alphabetical order) to Grümmer, Schwarzkopf, and Seefried (plus Steber for Shaw and Jo Vincent for Mengelberg). But in this Fach, I have no hesitation in proclaiming Rethberg world-class—and Schorr as well. Had Immortal Performances not been able to restore this performance as well as the Beethoven from six weeks later, our knowledge of the great soprano would have been sadly reduced.
Toscanini performed the Rubbra orchestration of Brahms’s Handel Variations only once, at a Studio 8H concert, January 7, 1939. I can’t imagine why he never returned to it. The British com- poser did, to my ear, a fine job, and Toscanini and the NBC Symphony, then in its second season, play the piece superbly. I have long had a good sounding dell’Arte CD of this broadcast (I suppose the label has been out of business for years). It is splendid to have this concert performance available once again. The new mastering is a bit less glossy than the older CD, but I suspect it is much more accurate as to orchestral timbres. I have referred elsewhere in my reviews of these 150th anniversary issues to the interview with Robert Hupka which follows the 1940 Verdi Requiem. Listening to this issue of the Handel Variations, I feel that I am hearing very much what Toscanini heard on the podium in 8H—every strand clear. It proves Hupka’s point that it was possible to get listenable sound from that venue. For those who wish to hear this arrangement in more representative sonics, you can supplement the Toscanini performance with a very decent Ormandy-Philadelphia recording.
Would that our restorers had the benefit of even 8H sound from the Lucerne Festival stage in 1939. In contrast to the First Concerto, which Horowitz and his future father-in-law played (so far as I know) only during the 1935 Brahms mini-season, they performed the Second more than once with the NBC Symphony and made a studio recording. I believe (but am not certain) that this Swiss concert, in that last summer before the world collapsed, was their first “go” at the piece. With an orchestra that featured Adolf Busch in the concertmaster’s chair and his brother Hermann as first cellist (playing the third movement solos beautifully), we have here a performance of the first two movements with the febrile, nervous energy of those NBC performances. The last two movements are rather more relaxed, and even though the sonics, once again, require our forbearance, this performance is of absorbing interest, and comes to a stunning conclusion. Likewise, too, the musical portion of these discs—which is on my Want List, and should be on yours!
As befits so unique a release as this premiere of the German Requiem, Immortal Performances offers its usual interesting and attractively presented documentation. In addition to expected discus- sion of the music and artists, we find commentary dating from the time of the broadcast and Caniell’s interesting remarks on the technical difficulties to which I have alluded. The second CD includes some choice spoken comments, most particularly an interview with the superb violinist and original Philharmonia leader, Manoug Parikian, who discusses Toscanini’s two concerts with that orchestra, performing Brahms. We have here a release notable in this, or any, year, and one I urgently commend to you for purchase and careful listening.
BRAHMS: EIN DEUTSCHES REQIEUM 1935
Philharmonic-Symphony Society of New York
November / December 2016
The Brahms Requiem (sung in German) here is a great gift to the world. Authorized by the Toscanini Estate to issue this vitally important historical performance, the folks at Immortal Performances have done sterling work in presenting it in eminently listenable sound, and offering the ideal complement to the previous Toscanini/Brahms set (IP 1025).
After a very atmospheric introduction by Davidson Taylor to this broadcast performance of Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem, Toscanini directs a beautifully sculpted performance of the first movement. In the accompanying booklet, Richard Caniell goes into some detail about the difficulties presented in the transfer of this performance; given this background, the arrival here of this Requiem is nothing short of a minor miracle. In terms of what we get, the detail is astonishing, particularly in the lower registers, while the chorus is extremely well balanced with no loss of soprano tone as the pitch rises. The second movement (“Denn alles Fleisch”) is markedly slow, almost as if dragging its feet, a sense of ominous dread throughout; the entry of the chorus is the perfect prolongation of the orchestra. One of the great worries in any historical recording is whether the sound will take the heaven-storming climaxes of the second movement; it does, despite the inevitable intrusion of some surface noise. The sudden “Aber des Herrn Wort” is phenomenally effective.
Schorr’s “Herr, lehre doch mich” is absolutely laden with sadness. His voice has great presence (the tessitura does sound rather high for him, though). Toscanini’s grasp of the emotive power of this movement is miraculous. Certainly, there are challenges—plummy pizzicato lower strings, and the last choral section is rather overshadowed by the rolling timpani—but nowhere is the integrity and sheer heft of the performance compromised. Schorr’s return later in the piece is even finer, imperious and almost triumphalist.
Schorr’s companion is the great Elisabeth Rethberg, magnificent in her first angelic phrase (“Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit”) a moment that is worth the price of the set alone. Rethberg provides incomparable singing that needs to be heard.
It is the apocalyptic nature of “Tod wo ist dein Stachel?”, defiant and full of drama, that seems to sum up Toscanini’s Brahms Requiem, and his excellent chorus does not let him down. It is apocalyptic in feel; the final movement is astonishing in its power, and I can think of no higher praise for the restoration than to state that one has to concentrate on the background swish to find it. This is more than an indispensible supplement to Toscanini’s 1943 recording with the NBC Symphony and Westminster Choir (soloists Vivian Della Chiesa and Herbert Janssen, on Guild and Naxos Historical and performed, one should add, in English.)
Of extra value to his set is the American premiere of the Rubbra orchestration of the Brahms Handel Variations. The theme is heard cleanly; but already in Variation I Rubbra begins to add in his own accent, his own “sauce,” if you prefer. Yet Variation VIII sounds like pure Brahms in orchestral mode, the Brahms of the granitic First Symphony specifically. The woodwinds in particular are in fabulous form throughout, and Variation VII furnishes a great example of their prowess. Amazingly, one can hear the subterranean double basses of Variation X perfectly well, just as one can appreciate the terrific fleetness (and even happiness) in Variation XIV. There is sheer magic to Variation XXII, where we can hear through the years Rubbra’s impeccable grasp of the orchestra, while the recording provides a terrific, snappy presence to the pizzicato strings of Variation XXIII. The accuracy and vigor of the (arco) strings in Variation XXVI is part of the essential lead-in to the work’s blazing final pages (the closing fugue). Toscanini’s vision over the course of these 26 variations is little short of magnificent.
The Brahms First Concerto with Horowitz from 1935 had been included in a previous Brahms set by this company (IP 1025). Here is a rare outing for a Lucerne performance of the Second Piano Concerto; the orchestra, we are told, included both Adolf and Hermann Busch. Yes, the recording balance is skewed at the opening (the solo horn could be a distant alphorn, the piano right up close and personal), but who would want to lose out on the magnificent sweep of Horowitz’s playing? The variety of tone and dynamic is remarkable, and how wonderful that the recording allows us to appreciate this vital facet of his playing. Horowitz and Toscanini are very much on the same page throughout; the blazing final pages of the first movement are testament to that alone. The orchestral intensity in the second movement is simply remarkable, matched by Toscanini’s magnificent touch; we hear the imposing resonance of the piano bass register, too as the movement hurtles towards a close. The slow movement flows beautifully, with Caniell’s restoration bringing a beautiful sense of presence (the recording notes speak of a shift from first to second balcony perspective over the course of the piece, which he has worked to correct as far as humanly possible). Horowitz’s gossamer touch is more than adequately caught at the finale’s opening, as is the magnificent nature of his staccato and the fury of his outbursts. Some readers might know the Horowitz/Toscanini October 1948 performance in clearer sound on Music & Arts (1077), but the present performance has a special quality that shines through the sonics.
While many companies might have issued this as a stand-alone Requiem, all credit to Immortal Performances for providing such fertile couplings. The rarity of the Brahms/Rubbra is particularly noteworthy. The set rounds off with a brief nine-minute conversation between producer Ian Carson and the leader of the Philharmonia Orchestra (London), Manoug Parikian, on Toscanini’s Brahms in London. We learn Toscanini spent more time on the Third Symphony than any of the others, and about his insistence on clarity in it; and that the Second Symphony had the least rehearsal (“it plays itself”). Obviously the famous temperament has to be asked about, but no: “a wonderful, mellowed old man.” It was the intensity that was there in spades. Finally, this also shows how the studio recordings do not represent Toscanini at his finest. Fascinating.