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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
A German Requiem (sung in English)
Herbert Janssen (baritone)
Vivian Della Chiesa (soprano)
Westminster Choir
NBC Symphony Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini
Recorded 24 January 1943 – with broadcast commentaries
GUILD GHCD 2290 [73.05]

It was a surprise to read that Toscanini performed the German Requiem so infrequently. This NBC inscription was fortunately preserved because this is apparently the only time he performed it with the orchestra – there were a smattering of performances with the Philharmonic-Symphony in New York, Vienna Philharmonic and BBC Symphony. It also represents the only known example of Toscanini’s way with the work on disc – he left no commercial recording of it. The concert was part of a Brahms cycle given in 1943 and has been released twice before on CD, to my knowledge – by Memories and by Naxos.

Firstly Guild has utilised copies from Toscanini’s own collection, which he gave to a favoured engineer, Richard Gardner. They differ from the Naxos and Memories sources – notably in the case of Memories’ release, which was afflicted with stereo reverb. Naxos’ release was rather muffled and scratchy. So this is now the best sounding transfer on the market and will be of especial interest to admirers of the conductor’s (I think only Americans call Toscanini the Maestro) way with Brahms.

It’s sung in English; perhaps the sentiment was against German language performance but it will certainly weigh in one’s mind. The opening movement is curiously soft grained but Behold, all flesh is as the grass (as I suppose one should put it) whilst beginning quite emphatically is full of powerful direction and clarity – sectional discipline is tight – even though I must say I find some of the direction wilful and the occasional elasticities unnatural sounding. The Westminster Choir – an off/on body that could be splendid on its day – was on very variable form on that January evening, with the tenors going awry in How lovely are thy dwellings and entries not quite together elsewhere, however sonorously they sing. The NBC strings shine in And ye now therefore have sorrow as does the principal clarinet. Janssen impresses, not least because he has to sing in English, even if Della Chiesa is not his equal.

Some of the printed text is at variance from what is sung (try Janssen’s singing of Lord, teach me and the choral For here we have no continuing city)– which makes me wonder which translation was being used. Otherwise Guild preserve the announcements – they’re always keen to do this – and the presentation is fine; sound, as I said, a real improvement. Performance – for me, uneven.

Jonathan Woolf

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