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CD, MP3, FLAC: Pristine Audio

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Missa Solemnis (1818-23)
Lois Marshall (soprano); Nan Merriman (mezzo); Eugene Conley (tenor); Jerome Hines (bass)
Robert Shaw Chorale, NBC Symphony Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini
rec. 1953

Experience Classicsonline

This is a live NBC radio broadcast from Carnegie Hall, made on 28 March 1953, its source being a “recording from the private collection of Christophe Pizzutti”. As such, it inevitably invites comparison with the RCA recording made with the same forces, in the same venue, begun only three days later on 30 March and completed over 31 March and 2 April. Pristine have also produced an “ambient stereo” remastering of the RCA recording which I have not yet heard, but which they claim “ is the extraction of the natural reverberation as captured in the original recording and the opening of this out onto a stereo soundfield.” I should like to hear that, too, but note that Pristine concede that no modern remastering can address the main shortcoming of the RCA recording, which is that the soloists are placed too far back. The remedying of that defect, conveniently, is the main virtue of this live broadcast – but that comes at a price, which is a prominent hiss. The slightly dull ambience of the RCA version, even in its sharpened up 1998 incarnation (in a 2 CD BMG classics set with the “Choral Symphony”) is certainly easier on the ear but orchestral details are submerged and the solo voices less immediate. The disciplined but impassioned chorus emerge intact in both recordings and both convey not only the greatness of the work itself but the supremacy and conviction of Toscanini as its supreme interpreter.

The radio announcements and audience applause have been edited in order to fit CD duration limit and one peculiarity is noted: “An organ malfunction during the Kyrie rendered it inoperable for the rest of the performance.” This results in some diminution in the heft of the continuo but it is scarcely noticeable except just before the return to the main subject of the “Kyrie”, otherwise the double-basses carry the burden adequately and I really don’t think it should be a factor.

Comparisons with Toscanini’s earlier performances might be artistically enlightening but the sound of the famous 1940 version places it beyond any but the most enthusiastic historical buff when looking for a recording to live with. One thing is clear: once Toscanini had assimilated this monumental work into his concert repertoire he performed it more and more frequently and at an increasingly brisk pace without sacrificing any expressiveness, such was his care for rhythm, dynamics, phrasing and balance. The 1953 NBC recording is a full five minutes faster than that of 1940 and this live one sits exactly in between the two, mainly the result of the first two movements being more leisurely, at a minute and a half and a minute longer respectively, than that NBC version. I prefer the immediacy of the NBC tempi, but this being Toscanini, he makes all three work. In any case, the “Kyrie” has no metronome markings to act as a guide, even if one were to take any notice of such things. One thing is for sure: the Robert Shaw Chorale must have at first been terrified by the tempo he set for the notoriously challenging “Et vitam venturi” – but they hang on and it makes for a thrilling ride. Timings for the last three movements are otherwise pretty much identical for both 1953 versions. Toscanini remains the quickest out of Karajan, Klemperer and Bernstein, and despite his “Gloria” being, for example, three minutes shorter than Giulini’s slightly turgid version, there is never any sense of undue hurry, merely a massive momentum and certainty of purpose. Even the most fervent admirer of Bernstein might concede that his evident reverence for this music occasionally tempts him into too etiolated and, yes,”indulgent” an interpretation compared with Toscanini’s more virile directness. I still love Karajan’s rapt account of the “Sanctus” and “Benedictus” with his ideal team of soloists, but find nothing lacking in Toscanini’s poised control here, which is ably enhanced by the beautiful playing of Daniel Guilet, the NBC concertmaster. Having said that, no violinist quite approaches Karajan’s legendary Michel Schwalbe for eloquence and purity of tone, even if the delicacy of Krebbers in the Bernstein set is also very beguiling. Overall, the closest comparison for precision, energy and attack is to be found, somewhat surprisingly, in Klemperer’s celebrated 1965 recording with the redoubtable New Philharmonic Chorus trained by Wilhelm Pitz.

Key moments in this account come off so well owing to Toscanini’s famed combination of discipline, rhythmic precision and overt emotionalism. Hence the attack of the strings at “crucifixus” is heart-wrenching, contrasting tellingly with the beatific sense of the awe and mystery of the Incarnation, so powerfully conveyed by Conley at the words “homo factus est”.

Given that one of Toscanini’s many strengths was securing balance between orchestral voices, we must assume that he consciously made the decision to place the soloists further back from the microphone than we now find ideal. Certainly Jerome Hine’s sonorous, thunderous bass could overpower other voices and one of the pleasures of this live recording is that we can now hear both him and that grossly under-rated tenor, Eugene Conley, much more clearly. It is in fact the men who most benefit from the sharper acoustic of this recording; the gentler ambience of the NBC recording softens Nan Merriman’s rapid, flickering vibrato and prevents it sounding too close to a flutter. Similarly, it flatters Lois Marshall’s occasional impurity and slight scratchiness of tone compared with the almost otherworldly, disembodied flutiness of Gundula Janowitz’s soprano. Nonetheless, Marshall delivers a courageous and generous performance; her pitch is true and her fervour wholly convincing.

This new recording amply demonstrates the advantages of different microphone placement and forms a desirable adjunct to the commercial recording. Both provide ample evidence that in performance Toscanini was guided by the composer’s fervent superscription to this great Mass: "Von Herzen - möge es wieder - zu Herzen gehen".

Ralph Moore



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