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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Messa da Requiem (1874)
Maria Luisa Fanelli (soprano); Irene Minghini-Cattaneo (mezzo-soprano); Franco Lo Giudice (tenor); Ezio Pinza (bass)
Chorus and Orchestra of La Scala, Milan/Carlo Sabajno
rec. La Scala, Milan, September 3-13, 1929
PRISTINE PACO148 [77:34]

The recording transferred here was the first ever complete recording of Verdi’s masterpiece. It is quite difficult for us to appreciate today, when the work is absolutely central to the choral repertoire, that its ubiquity is largely a post-war phenomenon. This is demonstrated by the very small number of recordings of excepts from the Requiem to be found on 78 – a few each of ‘Ingemisco’ and ‘Confutatis maledictis’, but that is about it. This performance was the only complete recording until it was superseded by the Serafin recording a decade later, and it is this 1939 set which has been reissued many times, leaving the 1929 set almost forgotten.

The linking participant between the two recordings is Ezio Pinza, so I will begin at the bottom, so to speak, with the only member of the cast who has any presence in the consciousness of present-day music-lovers. He was one of the great singers of the 20th century, and his performances in this music are still the benchmark in the judgment of all others. His tone has an adamantine strength and solidity which no-one has ever bettered. It formed a bed-rock to any performance, giving the other singers in the ensembles a base which underpinned all they did. Listen to his recordings of ‘La vergine degl’angel’ from Verdi’s La Forza del Destino with Ponselle or ‘Qual volutÓ trascorere’ from I Lombardi with Gigli and Rethberg to hear this in its full glory. We can hear it here in ‘Libera animas’ and ‘Quam olim Abrahae’ in the ‘Offertorio and ‘Requiem aeternam’ in the ‘Lux Aeterna’. His solo appearances in ‘Mors stupebit’ and ‘Confutatis maledictis’ show also the accuracy and precision with which his voice moves between notes, the clarity of his enunciation of the text and his sense of line and musical momentum. He is also dramatic without ever being melodramatic. Having said all this, I think his performance as a whole is slightly better in the Serafin recording. For example, his ‘Confutatis’ is more characterised because Serafin does not rush him as Sabajno does.

The tenor is the forgotten Franco Lo Giudice. He was quite an important singer at La Scala in the 1920s, singing in the second casts of the world premieres of Boito’s Nerone (Pertile was the first-cast tenor) and Turandot, where he alternated as Calaf with Fleta. He had a very good voice with a real spinto quality, but he could be short-breathed and musically a little crude and slapdash. His pitching is sometimes a bit vague and he takes rather too long a time to reach the actual pitch of some of the sustained notes. He also has a tendency to slither between notes, something very different from the linking of notes in a true legato. His ‘Ingemisco’ is creditable and shows some sensitivity to the text, but it is a little mawkish (though, it must be admitted, less so than Gigli under Serafin). Both here and in the ‘Hostias’ there is no real honey in the tone.

The second best singer after Pinza is undoubtedly Irene Minghini-Cattaneo. She was a true Verdi mezzo and recorded excellent performances of Amneris (Aida) and Azucena (Trovatore) in the complete HMV recordings of the same period. She had a vibrant, exciting voice, more dramatic and involved than Stignani, and was a pre-war counterpart to Fiorenza Cossotto. She characterises all she sings and in the ‘Liber scriptus’ has clearly thought carefully about the text.

The singer who has had the worst press in undoubtedly the soprano, Maria Luisa Fanelli. According to Alan Blyth in his May 1990 Gramophone review of the Pearl reissue of this performance, which is the only other one that I know of, she is “frankly very bad, singing without a trace of sensibility and in a consistently loud and piercing tone”. I think this is a little unfair, though I certainly wouldn’t want to make any great claims for her singing. At least a part of the problem stems from the recording. The carbon microphones of the time emphasised the frequencies which led to many sopranos (particularly Italian and French ones) sounding much more strident on record than they did live. She also suffers from distortion in the recording to a much greater extent than any other aspect of the performance, possibly from being placed too close to the microphone. This said, she must also take a fair amount of the blame herself. She was clearly incapable of taking any note above the stave at a dynamic below forte and the soprano part of the Requiem is the one above all for which quiet, inward singing is vital. In the more dramatic parts, she gives a full-blooded performance with far more phrasing than she is ever given credit for and which has real excitement. In the ‘Recordare’ she does not take the usual reflective approach, but is much more passionate, and I find this convincing in its own way. Her ‘tremens factus sum ego’ in the ‘Libera me’ sounds truly terrified. However it cannot be gainsaid that her tuning is not always accurate (for example in the ‘Lacrimosa’) or her legato adequate. Where she is completely inadequate is in the ‘Requiem aeternam’, where she is quite unable to provide the necessary repose and for the concluding pianissimo top B flat, which should be one of the most heart-stopping moments in the piece, she can only manage a note which is nasty, loud and short.

The chorus is better than might be feared, especially by those who know the many acoustic recordings made between about 1905 and 1925 where the execrable chorus is claimed by the label to be that of La Scala Milan. If it really was from La Scala, then one can only hope that they fielded their third eleven for recording duties. Obviously, the technical standard of the chorus is not the equal of even a middle-ranking modern chorus, but they don’t disgrace themselves, and at times are quite impressive. The main problems to our ears is the constant slithering up to the notes at entries and a general vagueness of tuning. The ‘Sanctus’ is quite good and the ‘Libera me’ fugue characterful, though at a rather sedate tempo.

Sabajno’s conducting is generally swift, and not, I think, simply because of the time restrictions of 78 sides. It is not an ‘inward’ performance, however, and is definitely at its best in the more overtly dramatic parts. There is excitement in the ‘Dies irae’ and some interesting detail, though ‘Quam olim Abrahae’ is merely rushed. It is not, however, just a run through.

The recording is reasonably good, given that this is a work which is not easy to record well even today. The basses at ‘Te decet hymnus’ in the opening ‘Kyrie’ positively leap out of the speakers, though the chorus is much more distant the rest of the time. Unfortunately, the bass drum in the ‘Dies irae’ is almost inaudible. This is understandable; a real ‘thwack’ could have broken the groove wall and rendered the recording useless, but I think they went a little too far towards safety. The solo voices are very forward, though this was not necessarily an advantage for Fanelli. The transfer is excellent, with very little surface noise and rock solid pitch stability. Any problems with the sound are inherent in the original recording and beyond anything Mark Obert-Thorn could remedy.

In the 1950s, EMI issued a series of LP transfers which they called “Great Recordings of the Century” and this set would never have made it into that series. It is historically important as a first-ever recording, often interesting and in places very good, and I am glad to have it for all of these reasons, but it is not a great performance. If you have sufficient interest in the byways of recording history to want it, you will be most unlikely ever to find a better transfer of it.

Paul Steinson

Previous review: Ralph Moore



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