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Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

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Arturo Toscanini
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Missa Solemnis (1818-23)
Violin Concerto in D Op. 61 (1806)
Jussi Björling (tenor)
Zinka Milanov (soprano)
Bruna Castagna (contralto)
Alexander Kipnis (bass)
The Westminster Choir
Jascha Heifetz (violin)
NBC Symphony Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini
Recorded December 1940 (Missa Solemnis) and March 1940 (Violin Concerto)
GUILD GHCD 2248/9 [2 CDs: 121.05]


I canít imagine that this famous performance of the Missa Solemnis would face many detractors in respect of the fervour and articulacy of its response. It has long been held to be the greatest of Toscaniniís extant traversals and derives from a broadcast in December 1940; the 1953 NBC set was his only commercial recording but we are fortunate that this wartime broadcast has survived, as have an earlier 1935 broadcast in indifferent sound and an impressive 1939 BBC broadcast with Milanov, Thorburg, Koloman von Pataky and Nicola Moscona (BBC Legends BBCL4016-2).

The vivid drama is established immediately by the puncturing trumpets calls. These have given rise to claims that the recorded balance is askew; William Youngren in his notes makes a valiant case for the defence but I think unavailingly. There are deficiencies in the sound spectrum but it could hardly be otherwise in a work such as this, which requires the most acute of balancing. Nevertheless apart from the solo singers, who are forwardly balanced, the Westminster Choir makes a splendid impression. They were obviously well rehearsed by their choirmaster and sound passionately engaged and tightly focused in the Kyrie. The orchestra is equally on top form, responding with decisive power to Toscaniniís breakneck speed in the Gloria - which after a furious start relaxes. Vocally Björling and Kipnis take the greatest honours with their unmatched response to the drama (the formerís entrance in the Credo is particularly telling, as is the latterís nobility and declamation in the Benedictus). But Castagna, substituting for the ill Thorburg, is also impressive in the Sanctus and Milanov joins orchestral leader Mischa Mischakoff in wondrous phrasing in the Benedictus. The copies utilised do have some scuffs Ė these are noticeable particularly in the Gloria and the Agnus Dei but the sound is genuinely vivid and immediate. As for the performance itís incandescent.

Coupled with it is the famous Heifetz-Toscanini recording of the Beethoven Violin Concerto made earlier in the year, once more with the NBC Orchestra. This has last appeared on a Naxos disc where itís conjoined with the 1939 Heifetz Brahms Violin Concerto conducted by Koussevitzky - I reviewed it on this site and for interpretative matters I would direct readers there. Richard Caniell, eminence grise of the enterprise, notes that this transfer was undertaken as a result of complaints regarding the RCA BMG CD transfer. So for this transfer they have utilised a commercial set in what they state to be "a better sonic transfer" despite very honestly noting that the originals were "afflicted with sporadic instances of grit and ticks not hearable in the RCA disc." As well as the grit there are also a few residual thumps familiar to 78 collectors and also, rather more damagingly, the loss of a beat and a half in a side join in the first movement (at 12.42). Of the two transfers whilst I admire Guildís honesty and ambition itís the Naxos to which you should turn.

I suspect though that you will have long ago have acquired the Heifetz-Toscanini. If you have the commercial Missa Solemnis I would augment it with this demonstrably superior and blazing performance. Itís one of the greatest, if not the greatest accounts ever committed to disc.

Jonathan Woolf

 

 



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