Reviews for IPCD 1073–2
VERDI - Te Deum and Requiem 1940
VERDI Te Deum. Requiem • Arturo Toscanini, cond; Zinka Milanov (sop); Bruna Castagna (mez); Jussi Bjoerling (ten); Nicola Moscona (bs); Westminster Ch, NBC SO • immortal Performances 1073-2 (2 CDs: 144:10) Live: Carnegie Hall, New York 11/23/40 • Toscanini Memorial Tributes and Reminiscences
November / December 2016
This famous performance of Verdi’s great “Manzoni” Requiem, often reviewed in these pages, along with others of the conductor’s performances, is offered here in a remastering which, I feel confident in saying, surpasses any other I have heard, and is unlikely to be surpassed or even equaled any time soon. In preparation of this review, in addition to making a few comparisons with other pressings (ranging from odious to listenable), I also investigated the responses and wisdom of several of the numerous Fanfare commentators regarding earlier issues of this performance, and also other Toscanini Requiems, which we are fortunate to have available to us. Indeed, the present issue actually brings a closing of the circle of releases on the part of restorer Richard Caniell: Immortal Performances has previously issued the March 4, 1938 NBC Symphony broadcast of the Requiem and Te Deum, and also the somewhat more famous BBC performance of May 27, 1938 which at least one of our former writers has enshrined in the Hall of Fame and is a personal favorite of mine. We can now add this 1940 performance to those. The 1951 performance—the final commercial release heavily edited using rehearsal tapes in place of what was heard the night of the concert—has long been readily available.
My first hearing of this new mastering was little short of hair-raising, and also not without embarrassment. I had thought (the ears, after all do become accustomed to the familiar) that my imported Grammofono CD pressing was “OK,” and although it did not include the Te Deum, it offered instead a couple of Toscanini rarities: two Liszt tone poems. But, in fact, the Music & Arts remastering reviewed warmly by Henry Fogel in Fanfare 36:6 put my copy to shame, and this Immortal Performances release, part of a major devoir to the conductor on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of his birth, quite supersedes even that issue as well as those preceding.
In what way is this superior, may you ask? To my ear, clarity, honesty of timbre, and sheer sonic impact. While Milanov and Björling sound like themselves in the various issues I have heard, Castagna and Moscona are vocally reborn in the new release, particularly compared to the CEDAR mauling of the Grammofono release. Fogel notes that Moscona was not at his very best in the 1940 performance, and I tend to agree: He may have been a bit more solid than in the two 1938 performances (as was also marginally true of Milanov). The Westminster Choir also can be heard more clearly and in better balance with the orchestra. The aural image of the chorus particularly affects the Te Deum, which on these discs properly opens the program (as it did in Carnegie Hall—Fogel notes the absurdity of the M&A release having the Te Deum follow).
To my taste, this is THE great Toscanini performance of the Te Deum. There is a 1945 performance which Mortimer H. Frank discussed in Fanfare 13:2 and the commercial release of the 1954 broadcast (hearing that live at age 17 was my introduction to the piece). But the sonic resuscitation here is arresting, and we can hear the conductor at the height of his powers, balancing tension and repose in this lovely piece. There is no question that Toscanini, in his 73rd year, is at his very peak throughout this concert. Fogel, in the previously cited review, is outspoken in a manner unusual for him, saying this is “surely the best” of Toscanini’s Requiem performances, and that “it represents the conductor’s finest work on disc for this composer.” I could, I suppose, stop writing at this point. I have no difficulty comprehending the remarks of my friend of four decades, even if I am not quite sure I agree. My favorite Toscanini Requiem is whichever one I am listening to at the moment, and my personal choice as Toscanini’s greatest Verdi performance is the 1947 Otello. However, my motto is ever chacun à son goût, and I refer to Fogel’s opinion as well as to those of others so that our readers may appreciate just what a significant recorded performance is offered here.
Particularly as heard in the various Immortal Performances masterings, we can appreciate first the 1938 New York performance for remarkable lyricism, for Milanov’s voice at the most youthful (not yet 32), and for Charles Kullman, seldom heard in Verdi. He sang Alfredo, and the occasional Duke. He was my first Rodolfo in the first opera I ever saw (SFO, November 1945). He had sung a Walther von Stolzing of liquid beauty for Toscanini at Salzburg in 1936 (see the review in this issue). He may have lacked quite the “heft” for the Requiem, but we would be the poorer without his contribution. Castagna was as fine in 1938 as in 1940, and indeed in each and every performance I have heard from her. Moscona seems to me to have been in slightly better voice in New York and London in 1938 than on the particular evening under consideration here. Henry Fogel, in the review cited earlier, questions also Pinza’s absence from (by implication) any of these performances. He sang the Beethoven Ninth with Toscanini in 1938; why not the Requiem? The answer seems to be that Pinza had been announced for the Requiem performance of that first NBC Symphony broadcast season, but withdrew a fortnight or so before the performance due to illness. Moscona, recently arrived at the Met, came, sang, and remained a Toscanini regular through the 1953–54 season. Pinza, of course, participated in a historic studio recording of the work in 1939.
Second, we can enjoy the London performance for what is arguably Milanov’s best performance of the three (all are exceptional but there is a seriously unsupported note in 1940), and for our only chance to hear Thorborg sing this music. She actually sang the Requiem three times to Castagna’s two under Toscanini’s baton, but the August 1939 Lucerne performances remain only in sonically wretched fragments. Fogel and I prefer Björling in New York to Roswänge in London, but it is surely interesting to hear this heroic Tamino in Verdi. The Danish tenor actually sang a lot of Verdi, and this adds to his discography. Overall, with the quality of soloists taken in toto, the chorus “on form” as our British colleagues would say, and the remarkably clarified Carnegie Hall sound, many will agree that if you can have only one of these earlier performances, it should be this one. I, however, listen regularly to all three, and also to the 1951 commercial release, which rather differs in nervous energy and drive. One misses the repose, but more than a decade after the others, it is thrilling to hear the drive and dynamism which he could summon in even his late years. One can make a strong argument that the present 1940 performance offers the best balance and blend of the qualities Toscanini brought to the piece: dynamism, majesty, lyricism. One does not have to make a sonic argument.
As ever with Immortal Performances, the text and graphics accompanying the discs are of top quality—attractive in layout and informative in content. Further, the performance of the Requiem is followed by various spoken offerings, including a fascinating discussion with audiologist and amateur photographer Robert Hupka who, as an NBC employee in the 1940s, had the opportunity to take many candid photographs of Toscanini in action. Here, however, he discusses sonics, and his comments on Studio 8H microphone placement there and in Carnegie Hall are fascinating—an absorbing complement to the music.
Thus, the important news here: These are the finest remasterings I have heard of two works comprising one of the 20th century’s most notable concert performances—a great conductor, orchestra, chorus, and soloists operating at or near their very peak, in music which this conductor was born to conduct and these soloists born to sing.
VERDI - Te Deum and Requiem 1940
November / December 2016
In the previous issue of Fanfare, I reviewed Immortal Performances’ remastering of a May 27, 1938 London Queen’s Hall performance of the Verdi Messa da Requiem by Arturo Toscanini, the BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, and soloists Zinka Milanov, Kerstin Thorborg, Helge Roswaenge, and Nicola Moscona (IPCD 1058-2). Immortal Performances has now issued Toscanini’s November 23, 1940 NBC concert broadcast from Carnegie Hall of the Requiem and Te Deum. The release is one of several by this label commemorating the 150th anniversary of the conductor’s birth (March 25, 1867). The first paragraph of my review of the 1938 BBC Requiem provides context for the 1940 performance as well:
“Arturo Toscanini first conducted Giuseppe Verdi’s Messa da Requiem on January 27, 1902 at the Milan La Scala Opera House, in commemoration of the first anniversary of the composer’s death. On January 27, 1951, Toscanini observed the 50th anniversary of Verdi’s passing with his final performance of the Requiem, broadcast from the stage of New York’s Carnegie Hall. That performance, issued by RCA, is by far the most well-known document of Toscanini’s approach to the Requiem. By all accounts (including Richard Caniell’s, in his essay accompanying the Immortal Performances set under review), Toscanini was dissatisfied with the 1951 performance. It was only after producers corrected errors by substituting various sections from the dress rehearsal that Toscanini approved commercial release. The 1951 Verdi Requiem, as issued by RCA, is both an important historical document and one with considerable strengths as a performance. In addition to the NBC Symphony Orchestra and Robert Shaw Chorale, the performers include a distinguished quartet of vocal soloists (Herva Nelli, Fedora Barbieri, Giuseppe Di Stefano, Cesare Siepi). The recorded sound, quite good for its early 1950s vintage, documents a taut and fleet rendition that packs considerable dramatic punch. For many however, this reviewer included, a November 23, 1940 Carnegie Hall broadcast with the Westminster Choir and NBC Symphony Orchestra is a far more compelling document of Toscanini’s way with one of Verdi’s towering masterpieces. The most noticeable differences are the 1940 performance’s far more expansive tempos. But there is also a remarkable flexibility of phrasing that gives the music an extraordinary vibrancy, beauty, and dramatic momentum. The all-star vocal quartet (Zinka Milanov, Bruna Castagna, Jussi Björling, Nicola Moscona) rises to the occasion. While the 1951 broadcast is thrilling in its own right, the 1940 rendition is musically and emotionally overwhelming. The recorded sound of the 1940 broadcast (issued by Music & Arts) is more than ad- equate to convey the majesty this sublime performance.”
In my review I suggested that, perhaps, the 1938 BBC performance, with even broader tempos and greater application of rubato than the 1940 counterpart is, in its own way, more impressive. Further, the Immortal Performances remastering of the 1938 Requiem represents a considerable sonic improvement over the previous, and highly admirable, 2004 release on the Testament label (SBT2 1362). But when comparing the 1938 and 1940 performances, we are talking about gradations of rarefied greatness, both in terms of Toscanini’s interpretation and the musicians’ realization of it. I believe that both the 1938 and 1940 concerts are essential listening, and deserve to be heard in the best sound possible. In the case of the 1938 BBC broadcast, the Immortal Performances release is the one to own.
This leaves for consideration the 1940 broadcast. It has been issued several times by Music & Arts; 1986 (restoration by Maggi Payne); 2003 (Graham Newton); and 2012 (Kit Higginson). The 2012 M&A issue is, to my ears, the most impressive of the three, with full, rich sonics, and admirable detail. Most of the Immortal Performances releases I’ve reviewed have represented a dramatic sonic improvement over previous issues by other labels. In the case of this 1940 Requiem, the improvement is less striking, but that is a product of the high level achieved in the previous M&A issues. Still, I prefer the new Immortal Performances restoration. The 2012 M&A release has, to my ears, a suggestion of artificial enhancement. The Immortal Performances issue offers a more natural concert hall acoustic, along with finer detail, and a better delineation of the various instrumental and vocal forces in large ensemble passages. Try the buildup to the Tuba mirum, or the conclusion of the Sanctus for two representative and thrilling examples. Again, it’s a much closer call than usual, but I do believe the Immortal Performances release is the version of choice for this remarkable document.
The Immortal Performances release also includes additional features not found on the M&A issues. While the M&A releases have one track each for the Dies irae, Offertorio, and Libera me sections of the Requiem, Immortal Performances assigns a track to each sub-section (especially appreciated when attempting to play and replay Jussi Björling’s glorious “Ingemisco”!). Portions of announcer Gene Hamilton’s broadcast commentary precede and follow both the Te Deum and Requiem. As an appendix, the second disc also includes numerous spoken tributes:
A eulogy by music critic Howard Taubman;
Announcer Ben Grauer reads RCA’s David Sarnoff’s reflections on Toscanini’s death;
Soprano Lotte Lehmann recalls her collaborations with Toscanini;
Recollections by Toscanini photographer Robert Hupka;
The Impact of Toscanini, a 1963 WQXR program with Martin Bookspan, and music critic and NBC Music Executive Samuel Chotzinoff.
My favorite among these is Lehmann’s tribute, overflowing with the German soprano’s characteristic warmth, humanity, and humility. (“I have never been especially musical”!) Also included are essays by Robert Matthew-Walker, Richard Caniell, and Olin Downes, as well as artist bios, and a brief appreciation of Toscanini by Lawrence Gilman, but no texts or translations for the featured works. If you are acquiring this legendary concert for the first time, the new Immortal Performances release is a strong first choice. If you already own prior M&A releases, most notably the 2012 re- mastering, it’s a somewhat closer call. I am delighted to have the Immortal Performances set, and will use it as my reference for this overwhelming performance.