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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Missa Solemnis in D, op. 123 [78:58]
Zinka Milanov, soprano; Bruna Castagna, contralto; Jussi Bjoerling, tenor, Alexander Kipnis, bass. The Westminster Choir, John Finley Williamson, director.
NBC Symphony Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini
Recorded at a live radio broadcast on 28 December 1940 at Carnegie Hall, New York.
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D, op. 61.[38:44]
Jascha Heifetz, violin
NBC Symphony Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini
Commercial recording from 11 March 1940
All recordings ADD
GUILD GHCD 2248/9 [2CDs: 121:05]

 

Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, was originally intended to be performed at the installation of his friend and patron Rudolph, Archduke of Austria, as Archbishop of Olmütz in Moravia. It is a work grand in scale and at many points, simply over the top. In my opinion, it is a piece that we have been stuck with hearing and performing simply because it is a large work by a major composer. In reality, it is fraught with problems, and many of the performances that I have come across are merely shouting matches between a chorus that is consistently asked to sing too high and loud for too long, and an orchestra that is at the very least, overblown. Having said all that, we are still left to contend with the piece, as it has made its way into the canon, if only on the fringes.

Guild have presented a very well assembled and attractively presented recording of the 1940 live broadcast of the Missa, which Arturo Toscanini conducted as a benefit for the National Conference of Christians and Jews. There are a number of positives that make this recording worth owning, if only as a historical document. That the recording even exists is thanks in great part to the work of the late Robert Hupka, who was employed by RCA during the NBC Symphony years, and is as famous today for the nearly one thousand photographs that he surreptitiously took of Toscanini, as he is for being a valiant crusader for the careful preservation of the Toscanini broadcast archives. It is to his memory that this set is dedicated.

The performance is complete with the original announcer’s comments at the beginning of the program, and one gets a delightful sense of nostalgia for an era of cultural awareness and appreciation that has long since disappeared from the American mindset. In spite, however, of the historical significance of this broadcast, we are still faced with a number of problems that I would be remiss not to mention.

First, let us deal with the primitive sound of the recordings themselves. Although it is obvious that every possible care has been taken to preserve and enhance these aging masters, there are many lengthy passages, particularly the busy contrapuntal sections in the Gloria and Credo that are simply a blur of nearly indistinguishable notes and words. Historic or not, these passages are nearly unlistenable and severely detract from whatever enjoyment one may derive from this performance. The lack of balance between choir and orchestra, and even between the sections of the orchestra itself is also problematic. There is no shortage of episodes where the brass simply blare away and the strings and winds are left in the dust. Furthermore, despite the sublime singing of Jussi Bjoerling and Alexander Kipnis, we are still left with Zinka Milanov, who could never muster more than an ounce of subtlety. She bellows and swoops her way through the score with no sensitivity to the text to be found. Mezzo Bruna Castagna fares better, but she is often buried in the quartet.

The award for superior performance must go to NBC symphony concertmaster Mischa Mischakoff for his stunningly beautiful rendition of the lengthy aria for violin at the beginning of the Benedictus. His simple and unaffected playing is a welcome relief to the posturing and shouting to which we have been subjected for more than an hour heretofore.

The Westminster Choir under John Finley Williamson was considered to be the state of the art in those days, but his woofy, bellowing style of choral singing has long since become passé, and by the end of the score, one starts to feel for the bleeding throats of his singers.

The commercial recording of the Violin Concerto fares considerably better, both in sound quality and performance. Although Jascha Heifetz has oft been criticized for his technique-over-emotion manner of playing, he quite rises to the occasion in this engaging performance. His steely perfection may be off-putting to the romantics in the listening pool, but he finds plenty of drama in the extended opening movement, ample lyricism in the cantabile inner movement and the rollicking dance qualities of the rondo simply spring to life under his fingers. Orchestral balances are excellent, in spite of Toscanini’s tendency to push tempi into overdrive and to over-accent and over-dramatize certain passages.

Guild’s booklet is quite thorough, although a bit long on sycophantic tributes to the maestro. As I mentioned earlier, this disc is presented in tribute to Robert Hupka, and as such, we are subjected to his essay concerning Toscanini and the Missa. Hupka wears his heart on his sleeve when he speaks of this music, and his near idol worship of the conductor borders on the nauseous. In his defense, he does belong to the generation where maestros were worshipped as minor deities and the effusive language in his commentaries belies this mindset. It is high time though that we dispelled the myth of the infallibility of such figures as Toscanini and Furtwängler. Great as they were, they were the products of their time, and their aesthetic has perhaps outlived its legend. We should now be able to look back and evaluate the work of these giants of the past with a more realistic slant, shedding the cult of personality that has for so many years obscured some of the very real flaws in both their character and musicianship.

Perhaps the most interesting and valuable asset of this set is its portrayal of a time in American history when works of art and high culture were still valued by a more sizable portion of the population. More importantly, they were held in higher regard by the broadcast media, and we had persons like David Sarnoff to thank for placing such performances before the public in regular and prominent places.

Recommended with a few caveats for either history buffs or Toscanini fanatics.

Kevin Sutton

see also review by Jonathan Woolf who finds it more enjoyable.



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