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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Messa da Requiem (1874) [83:29]
Te Deum (1898) [15:58]
Zinka Milanov (soprano); Bruna Castagna (mezzo); Jussi Björling (tenor); Nicola Moscona (bass)
Westminster Choir
NBC Symphony Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini
rec. live, 23 November 1940, Carnegie Hall, New York
MUSIC & ARTS CD-1269 [56:58 + 42:51]

The catalogue contains quite a number of performances of Verdi’s Requiem conducted by Toscanini. There is, for example, a live 1938 performance, also from New York, which was reviewed for MusicWeb International by Jonathan Woolf. That performance, which I’ve not heard, used three of the soloists who feature here, the exception being that Charles Kullman was the tenor in 1938. There’s another 1938 performance, given just a few weeks later than the one reviewed by Jonathan, but this time with BBC forces in London’s Queen’s Hall (Testament SBT2-1362). For that performance Milanov and Moscona were once again on duty while Kerstin Thorborg and Helge Rosvaenge took the mezzo and tenor parts.
It’s worth pointing out at the outset, that Music & Arts have issued these performances before, firstly as CD-240 (1986) in a restoration by Maggi Payne and secondly as CD-4240 (2003) in a restoration by Graham Newton. This latest incarnation offers a brand-new (2012) restoration by Kit Higginson. I’m slightly mystified as to why Music & Arts have chosen to place the Te Deum at the end of the second disc when Harvey Sachs makes it clear in his informative notes that the concert began with the Te Deum. It would have been perfectly possible to arrange the CDs in the same order. One other slight disappointment is that each movement of the Requiem is presented as a single track whereas many recordings of the work, including the Testament issue of the 1938 London concert, split the longer movements into more than one track.
This 1940 reading of the Requiem is a very fine one indeed even though there are a number of blemishes of tuning and ensemble such as often happen in the white heat of live performance. Harvey Sachs notes the most significant examples in the booklet. One of these involves Jussi Björling who, in the ‘Lux aeterna’, doesn’t hold a top G flat for long enough (7:38). As a result his next entry is early and he has to stop singing for a bar of two to regain his place. To be honest, however, one would have to be following with a score or know the work extremely well to spot this and it’s equally true of the other small errors to which Mr Sachs very honestly points that they don’t mar one’s enjoyment of a remarkable performance.
I’ve mentioned Björling early on because his presence is one advantage – perhaps the most compelling advantage - that this 1940 account enjoys over the 1938 London performance. In his notes for the Testament issue Harvey Sachs refers, rightly, to the “seemingly effortless lyricism” of Björling in 1940. Fine artist though he is, Rosvaenge isn’t in Björling’s class in this repertoire; he can’t, for example, float the ‘Hostias’ as beautifully. The ‘Ingemisco’ is pretty special in Björling’s hands too.
Zinka Milanov sings in both performances and though she does well in 1940 – she and Björling are the pick of the 1940 soloists – I think she’s even better in 1938. She seems more relaxed and in command there. As Harvey Sachs fairly points out, she seems under increasing strain during the ‘Libera me’, especially in the last stretch of the unaccompanied passage with the chorus, leading up to the top B flat. To be honest, at that point she runs out of steam in this New York performance and the final note is neither hit truly nor sustained properly. Hear her in 1938 to experience what she could really do. Also common to both performances is Nicola Moscona. I fear that I don’t care for his 1940 performance very much at all. All too often he sounds blustery and I don’t feel that he sings with sufficient good taste. He sounds lachrymose in the ‘Lacrymosa’ section of the Dies Irae – as does Bruna Castagna – and he’s also rather lugubrious in the ‘Domine Jesu Christe’ movement. To my ears he’s on much better form in the 1938 London performance where he provides a solid foundation to the solo quartet. Perhaps it helps that he’s recorded less closely in that performance as compared with 1940.
I’m sorry to say that I’m not too enamoured with Bruna Castagna either. Frequently her tone seems to have an edge to it for which I don’t really care, especially in her lower register. In the ‘Recordare’ she “emotes” rather too much and some of her vowel sounds are odd. In the ‘Liber scriptus’ she takes more breaths than I would have expected from an artiste of her stature and as a result the line is chopped up.
Even if the soloists don’t always give unalloyed pleasure they also do many things very well. The contributions of the choir and orchestra are very strong indeed. One has the very definite impression that in both the 1938 London performance and this present one the musicians were galvanised into giving their all. The playing of the NBC Symphony Orchestra is alert and full-blooded. The Westminster Choir also does very well. In the Kyrie they give notice that they’re going to sing responsively for the Maestro and passages such as the ‘Tuba mirum’ are very exciting. The ‘Rex tremendae’ is imposing and impassioned. The choir also delivers the Sanctus very well; the music is made to sound jubilant.
Toscanini’s direction is clearly inspiring. Harvey Sachs rightly draws attention to the flexibility of the reading. I continue to find Carlo Maria Giulini a preferable guide to this work simply because he brings out even more of the reflective side than Toscanini does while not underplaying the dramatic elements. However, Toscanini’s interpretations of the score are always deeply impressive and this is one of the very finest to have come my way. You can tell that every bar, every phrase has been deeply considered. More than that, however, the flexibility of what we hear shows this to be a reading that is felt on the day by the conductor, who shapes the performance from moment to moment as the music unfolds.
Inevitably the sound has its limitations but I found that one soon forgets one is listening to a “vintage” recording, which is in itself a tribute to the quality of the account and the electricity of the interpretation. Some things are managed extremely well by the engineers, not least the distant trumpets in the ‘Tuba mirum’, and overall the sound is pretty amazing for its age. I’d say that this recording has the edge, sonically, over the 1938 London performance though that’s pretty remarkable also. As I haven’t heard this 1940 in its previous iterations I can’t say whether Kit Higginson’s remastering surpasses the efforts of his predecessors but he’s done a very fine job and one can only presume that Music & Arts consider that this latest transfer represents a further advance.
I was rather disconcerted by the start of the Te Deum. Toscanini gets his basses and tenors to sing the opening lines of chant loudly and in what I can only call a lusty fashion. He does the same thing in his 1954 live recording, also made in Carnegie Hall, but there the men of the Robert Shaw Chorale are a bit more refined (review). I grant that there is no dynamic indication in the vocal score but the performances which I’ve heard and in which I’ve taken part have almost invariably begun softly and with an air of mystery - I prefer that. Toscanini’s way does somewhat compromise the impact of the blazing ff cry of ‘Sanctus’ a few moments later. Once we’re past the opening, however, it’s a very good performance. What I always think of as the wall of sound – long before Phil Spector! – at ‘Salvum fac populum tuum, Domine’ (9:13) is fervent and there’s fervour of a very different, subdued nature at ‘Dignare, Domine’ (11:14); indeed, from here to the very end the performance is marvellously controlled and is delivered with great conviction. I had the impression, perhaps wrongly, that the great climaxes were slightly overloaded in this work but overall the recorded sound is still pretty remarkable.
Some collectors are allergic to applause after live recordings so I should point out that there is applause after both works. This scarcely constitutes a reason for passing up this set which contains what are by any standards two remarkable Verdi interpretations. It’s certainly a set that all Toscanini devotees will want to possess though I’d argue that its appeal is wider: to all who relish great conducting.
John Quinn

see also review by Paul C Godfrey