Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
A German Requiem (sung in English) (1865-68)
Herbert Janssen (baritone)
Vivian Della Chiesa (soprano)
Westminster Choir
NBC Symphony Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini
rec. 24 January 1943
with broadcast commentaries

There is intrinsic interest in this issue. It is after all technically and sonically probably the best available recording of a work which Toscanini never commercially recorded and performed relatively infrequently. Given the full Pristine treatment, including XR remastering and “convolution reverberation” to remedy the notorious dryness of NBC’s Studio 8H, it is really exceptional for a 1943 broadcast. It provides what I imagine is as close as we can get to an authentic concert hall experience.

The fact that it is sung in English - presumably in deference to understandable anti-German sentiment then prevailing - is no bonus at all; it simply sounds clumsy and laboured, starting with the ugly anastrophe “Blessed they”. Toscanini is often caricatured as an unrelentingly brisk conductor yet his tempi here are among the slowest on record. The effect is not ponderous but weighty. He begins in very restrained fashion and rises nobly to the chorales, fugues and climactic outbursts such as “Aber des Herrn Wort bleibet in Ewigkeit” - or rather, “But the Lord’s word standeth for ever”. Despite the careful and effective remastering, some slow, pulsing fluctuations in pitch obtrude. This is particularly noticeable during the slower passages but they do not seriously mar the listener’s enjoyment.

Herbert Janssen’s baritone is pleasant and dignified enough but a little dry and fluttery. His English is passable apart from some oddly distorted vowels (“mahsure” for “measure” and “parish” for “perish”). He hardly eclipses really impressive exponents of the part like José Van Dam. Vivian Della Chiesa is similarly pleasant; I like her full, vibrant voice more than some but she is hardly a rival to creamier-voiced sopranos such as Janowitz, Hendricks or Te Kanawa who can float a more ethereal sound.

The NBC Symphony Orchestra is very fine, the principal oboe and clarinet both being especially eloquent. The Westminster Choir is generally on form and responsive to Toscanini’s demands for dynamic shading, even if the tenors are occasionally AWOL and some entries ragged.

The disc preserves the radio announcements without crediting the announcer, Cliff Engels.

I cannot say that this performance is especially redolent of the Toscanini magic and as such it is a pleasant and interesting listen, but far from indispensable. Fans of the maestro will want it for its rarity value and solid virtues but for regular listening I would turn to other, more recent recordings in more sumptuous sound, by such as Karajan.

Ralph Moore

A pleasant and interesting listen, but far from indispensable.