Reviews for IPCD 1058–2
BBC VERDI REQUIEM 1938
The wonderful Queen’s English of the announcer sets the scene for this magnificent performance of Verdi’s Requiem—a performance that was also broadcast, he tells us, to “Czechoslovakia” and “Yugoslavia.” (Remember them?) For the present release, Richard Caniell has opened up the sound by restoring lost overtones, taking it to sonics even finer than those of Testament’s issue of the same performance (Testament 1362, which also was released as a two-for-the-price-of-one with no coupling, whereas here we have a Beethoven Fourth).
With surface noise at a minimum, one can glory in the carefully sculpted phrases, both choral and orchestral. The chorus is exquisitely handled in the opening Requiem aeternam; the entrance of the soloists at the Kyrie is led by the strong Roswaenge, and it becomes clear very soon thereafter that his is a quartet of equals. Thorborg is magnificent, confident and rich but not domineering; Roswaenge heroic, Moscona focused, and Milanov silvery of tone. Amazingly, the dynamic demands of the Dies irae are handled superbly here, with the drum thwacks posing no problems at all; when they return in the Libera me the same effect is there (albeit slightly altered by the rolling timpani). Toscanini’s dynamic approach is simply Heaven-storming, and his chorus is behind him all the way. The brass is better balanced than in many modern recordings, and still make their effect without leaping out at the listener, particularly in the passages of aggregation in the second movement.
Delivering a simply riveting Mors stupebit, Moscona stamps his personality on this performance in no uncertain terms; answering him with Liber scriptus is the imposing Thorborg, while Milanov simply glows. Milanov and Thorborg work beautifully together as a unit, too, as the Recordare and Agnus Dei show so conclusively. It is Roswaenge’s Ingemisco that is absolutely remarkable, and the recording fully supports him in full flight. The sense of presence of his voice (particularly on headphones, in my experience here) is simply remarkable, as is the silver tone of his tender Hostias; Moscona’s answer is just as magically rapt.
Toscanini seems completely inspired in this performance. Note, for example, the divine halos around the strings in the Quid sum miser or at the opening of the Lux aeterna, or the way he enables the soloists to relish every nuance of the Salva me. The difficult beginning to Domine Jesu Christe is effortlessly managed; this has to be the BBC orchestra at the height of its powers, and it is in the quieter moments that it really flowers and demonstrates this in the present performance. Listen, too, to the light touch in the Sanctus, or the variegated textures of the work’s final fugue.
The recording does tend to “duck,” for want of a better term, a little at Flammis acribus maledictis, but it is a minor blip in the grand scheme of things. Of course this is the perfect shelf companion to the Immortal Performances release of the March 4, 1938 Requiem from Carnegie Hall (1009-2, reviewed by Boyd Pomeroy in Fanfare 34:6), with Milanov and Moscona again but this time joined by Kullman and Castagna. But it is the all-embracing power of the London performance that captures the heart of the piece, and the sound is simply astonishing for its time, even if some might barely prefer Milanov in the earlier performance, where she seems just a tad fresher. Yet who would argue with the ferocious involvement of her Libera me in this London version? That set came with the complete NBC concert from January 31, 1943; here we have, recorded eight days previous to the Requiem, Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony, the sources of which are from a private collection and recorded off-air. This is a terrific performance: The mystery of the first movement introduction is immensely powerful, despite a persistent swish. There is some patching (from the 1939 performance), but it is one of those instances where the result is what counts, and to hear the verve of the orchestra, and Toscanini’s wonderfully considered interpretation, is rewarding indeed. Despite the sonic limitations, there is heft to the lower strings, and one can hear well the finely sculpted phrases of the violins in the Adagio. Here the background sound is a reassuring soft crackle, obscuring none of the detail (listen to how full-toned and believable the bassoon upward fourths are). Even the opening of the Menuetto (a Scherzo in all but name) preserves everything; and the anger of the orchestral chordal interjections to the scampering of the finale must be heard to be believed. Some of the angrier outbursts for tutti later do stretch the recording, it has to be said, but this remains an extraordinary performance. Toscanini acolytes need not hesitate.
BBC VERDI REQUIEM 1938
November / December 2017
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 difference 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 (released by Immortal Performances IPCD 1073-2).
In the May 27, 1938 broadcast from Queen’s Hall in London, with Toscanini and the BBC Choral Society and Symphony Orchestra, Toscanini inspires the orchestra and chorus to give a performance of breathtaking intensity and precision of execution. Listen, for example, to the opening of the Dies irae, and the ensuing buildup to the Tuba mirum. It is a singular moment of overwhelming and frightening intensity, the greatest rendition I have heard of this passage. The solo quartet is every bit as outstanding as in the 1940 performance. On this occasion, Milanov is in her absolute finest and most radiantly youthful voice. Her lush soprano soars fearlessly over the large orchestral and choral forces. Milanov’s trademark heavenly pianissimo is also on display, including the pppp high B♭on the word “Requiem” in the concluding Libera me (there is a slight bobble in the 1940 performance). Danish tenor Helge Roswaenge, far less well known than the legendary Jussi Björling, was in his own way equally impressive. Roswaenge’s brilliant, heroic voice and extraordinary technique produced some of the most stunning tenor recordings of the 1930s (for starters, try his 1936 disc of Hüon’s act I aria from Weber’s Oberon). Roswaenge is in sterling voice for the 1938 Requiem performance. Like Milanov, Roswaenge is able both to trumpet the most heroic tones, and deliver beautifully supported hushed passages. Toscanini takes the tenor solo Ingemisco at a remarkably broad tempo (3:48, compared to 3:34 for Björling in1940 and 3:04 for Di Stefano in 1951), but Roswaenge majestically sustains the line, right to the ringing final B♭. Kerstin Thorborg, one of the great Wagner mezzos of the 20th century, is in glorious form. Bass Nicola Moscona, a favored Toscanini artist, is admirable as well, if lacking the star quality of an Ezio Pinza or Siepi. And typical of a Toscanini-Verdi performance, the soloists declaim the text with crystal-clear diction and total emotional involvement. In short, this 1938 performance, like its 1940 counterpart, is essential listening for those who admire the Verdi Requiem and/or Toscanini’s legacy.
Unlike many of the Immortal Performances issues, the 1938 London Toscanini Verdi Requiem was previously issued in quite acceptable sound more than a decade ago, courtesy of Testament. But Richard Caniell’s new restoration represents a major improvement in every way. Perhaps most noticeable is the removal of most of the congestion previously heard in the loudest passages. But there is also much greater definition accorded the various instrumental and vocal components, coupled with an enhanced sense of a warm concert hall acoustic. If the Immortal Performances restoration is not quite the sonic equal of the best studio recordings of the period, it is very close, indeed. Sad to say, the same may not be said the bonus on this set, a May 19, 1938 performance of the Beethoven Fourth Symphony with Toscanini and the BBC SO. Richard Caniell details the intense labor involved in making this compromised off-the-air private recording acceptable for issue. And even in its much-improved state, the recording suffers from prominent surface noise, generally dim sonics, shifting perspective, and occasional fluctuation of pitch. Nevertheless, the sound is acceptable enough to hear a performance that is a fascinating complement to the same artists’ 1939 studio recording. Certainly the broad pacing of the first movement’s Adagio introduction, the whiplash, razor-sharp attacks in the ensuing Allegro vivace (and elsewhere), the arresting vitality and momentum, and the orchestra’s lovely singing tone are all characteristic of the 1939 recording, and Toscanini’s way in general with this score. But the 1938 concert performance strikes me as more intense, and also displays at times a liberal use of rubato (for example, the lead-in to the first-movement recapitulation) not typically associated with Toscanini, or at least, the stereotypes of this conductor.
The Verdi Requiem was an integral and important part of Arturo Toscanini’s repertoire throughout his storied career. Given Toscanini’s pre-eminence as a Verdi conductor (not to mention the treasured opportunity to speak with the composer regarding interpretation of his works), his recordings of this repertoire are essential listing. If forced to choose just one Toscanini Verdi Requiem performance, I’d be inclined to give the 1938 London performance a slight nod over the 1940 Carnegie Hall rendition. And thanks to Richard Caniell and Immortal Performances, we can now hear this treasure in vastly improved sound. The Beethoven Fourth, offered as a bonus, is a sonically flawed but still valuable document of an artist who was always searching for ways to better serve the composer. The CD booklet includes artist photos, and essays by Robert Matthew-Walker and Richard Caniell. Highest recommendation.