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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Requiem (1874) [83.50]
Te Deum (1874) [15.58]
Zinka Milanov (soprano), Bruna Castagna (mezzo), Jussi Björling (tenor), Nicola Moscona (bass)
Westminster Choir, NBC Symphony Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini
rec. Carnegie Hall, New York, 23 November 1940
MUSIC AND ARTS CD1269(2) [56.58 + 42.51]

Toscanini would have had no truck with the modern tendency, going back as far as Giulini, to treat the Verdi Requiem as a spiritual work which stands apart from the composer’s operatic catalogue. His performances had a full-blooded Italian approach with plenty of drama and passion. Indeed the first recording of the Verdi Requiem that I ever heard was the 1951 Toscanini version in the RCA transfer to LP, so this earlier 1940 performance has considerable personal attraction for me. In an extremely revealing and frank discussion of this recording in a note written in 1986 for an earlier transfer for this same label, Harvey Sachs draws attention to a number of faults and errors in the performance. He also claims, rightly, that the reading of the score we are given here is preferable to the later 1951 recording. In this excellent new re-mastering the sound is every bit as good as in the version made eleven years later.
Sachs lists a number of mistakes in the live performance which he suggests may have militated against issue during Toscanini’s lifetime. Following the performance with a score, I could identify every one of these; but it has to be said that most of the sins are venial ones, and would pass almost unnoticed if one were listening without such a reference. The only two exceptions are the early entry of Zinka Milanov, dragging some of the chorus in her wake, just nineteen bars before the end - obviously the performers were getting tired and careless at the end of an exhausting evening. The other problem is Milanov’s highly suspect and rather unpleasantly strained top B flat at the end of the unaccompanied passage in the Libera me - surprising for a singer who was renowned for her ability to float high quiet notes. There are other slips by both Björling and Moscona, but as observed they could pass almost unnoticed.
Another reason, not mentioned by Sachs, why Toscanini might have been reluctant to approve the recording for issue is that the singing of the Westminster Choir is decidedly less assured than that of the Robert Shaw Chorale in the 1951 performance. The tenors in particular are weak at several key points, and when the recording itself is otherwise so clear one cannot blame the engineers. There are some nice touches, such as the extremely quiet singing at the return of the words Requiem aeternam in the opening movement like an echo of the very beginning; but by and large the later performance has more body insofar as the choral singing is concerned. However in the earlier performance Toscanini allows more give-and-take, more rubato, in the rhythms, and this benefits the music and gives the singers more room to expand.
The soloists are a mixed bunch, but generally preferable to those in the 1951 recording. Milanov, her sins in the final movement set aside, is more secure and involved than Herva Nelli was later; and Jussi Björling has a stronger vocal presence than Giuseppe di Stefano - and benefits from Toscanini’s more relaxed approach to the Ingemisco. Bruno Castagna and Nicola Moscona are both good solid singers, even if not particularly imaginative, but their counterparts in the later recording are no significant improvement. The NBC studio sound in 1951 was notoriously dry; here the recorded sound from the Carnegie Hall obviously benefits from a more natural acoustic, but the close positioning of the microphones, while it enables us to hear plenty of detail, in places more than in 1951, robs the sound of some of the ambience of the venue itself.
The performance runs out at just over the length of a single CD. Among more modern recordings, Richard Hickox manages to squeeze the work onto one disc by virtue of faster speeds. The two CDs here are offered for the price of one, and we are given a bonus in the shape of a rather brash performance of the Te Deum given as a curtain-raiser at the same concert.
More modern recordings in the Toscanini tradition of all-out operatic fervour are best exemplified by Solti’s 1968 recording made in Vienna, which has a better-balanced and more starry team of soloists (Joan Sutherland, Marilyn Horne, Luciano Pavarotti and Martti Talvela) than either of the Toscanini recordings discussed here. Those who wish to encounter the tradition in its original form are well served by this performance. The sound, as Harvey Sachs observes, is “obviously not up to present-day engineering standards” but at the same time in the new re-mastering it sounds more recent than its original provenance would suggest. I have heard recordings from the late 1950s which sound no better than this. The set is best summed up by Sachs’s comment: “We are unlikely ever to hear a more overwhelming performance of the work than this one - ever.”
Paul Corfield Godfrey