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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Mass in D major - Missa Solemnis Op.123
Eleanor Steber (soprano)
Nan Merriman (mezzo)
William Hain (tenor)
Lorenzo Alvary (baritone)
Westminster Choir
Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York/Bruno Walter
Recorded live in Carnegie Hall, 18 April 1948
MUSIC & ARTS CD 1142 [78.06]

Historical Comparisons

Toscanini http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2003/Dec03/Missa_Toscanini.htm
Beecham http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2002/Aug02/Beecham_Beethoven.htm

The 1948 Walter Missa Solemnis has been out before, most recently on Urania, where the transfer was frankly very poor. Since this was a work Walter never recorded commercially and since there is now a relatively crowded field of off-air survivals from this period it’s important that this document gets the best possible restoration. The 1940 Toscanini is now on Guild, a blazing performance much admired by me though in fairness not everyone shares my admiration. The even earlier live Beecham from the 1937 Leeds Festival has made its mark on Somm, the latter irrefutable evidence of the conductor’s unlikely affinity with a score he performed a mere handful of times. I’ve reviewed them both on this site and both are historic front-runners. The Walter, in truth, isn’t.

The first thing to say is that Music & Arts’ unnamed restoration team has certainly made considerable sonic improvements and the latest restoration is in as good a sound as it can ever have received. But unavoidable problems remain and played at relatively high level one can hear the groove damage and acetate crackle as well as some evidence of distortion and rumble, as well as residual pitch problems that must have plagued the whole recording. Clearly there is only so far one can go with this restoration and no further. Nevertheless given that the aural limitations have at least been mitigated we can comment on certain aspects of the performance. Music & Arts’ booklet writer does mention the Toscanini/1940 (much preferable to his RCA 1953 commercial set by the way) and characterises this Walter as quicker in every movement as well as "more moulded and spiritual." Actually by my reckoning – if we want to reckon such things at all – things are equal in the Kyrie with the Italian if anything fractionally speedier, and Toscanini is far faster in the Credo than Walter.

What’s true is that Walter doesn’t instil the same kind of discipline – individual and corporate – that Toscanini does. Some choral entries aren’t well balanced and whilst this may well be a recording limitation that can’t apply to the messy start to the Gloria and to the moments of raggedness chorally and instrumentally. The soloists are also variable. Steber starts stridently but settles down somewhat; Merriman is probably the pick of the quartet, Hain has a bleating tone and Alvary a hollow one. The latter’s pitch is also uncertain though he does improve. Leader John Corigliano is, on this occasion at least, unable to match his predecessor Mischa Mischakoff’s seraphic work for Toscanini or Paul Beard’s sweet, portamento delicacy for Beecham. Walter is certainly profoundly engaged, his direction sure, the conception (in outline at least) full of the awe and rapture he had always felt for the work. But the details militate against him, and the imperfect execution limits true appreciation. In the end the sonic problems will limit pleasure – though limit is not the same as obliterate, as has been the case in previous transfers.

Jonathan Woolf

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