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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. 3-13 September 1929, La Scala, Milan. Mono
World première recording

In my survey last October, I did not consider pre-war, mono recordings of the Verdi Requiem as I was thinking more of providing guidance for the modern listener requiring stereo sound rather than those with a historical interest and a corresponding tolerance of more primitive recording techniques.

Nonetheless, there are a good few of those worthy of serious consideration if sound is not a priority, not least for the quality of their singing and conducting. These include (and here I quote from that review) “[t]he earliest recording…from 1929, featuring Pinza …Toscanini’s four live recordings, one from London in 1938 and three from Carnegie Hall, 1938, 1948, 1951, Serafin’s 1939 recording, de Sabata’s four, two of which feature quite extraordinary soloists, and several of Karajan’s earlier ones, stirring and superbly sung though they all are. I also exclude Fricsay’s three fine, mono recordings, which are suffused with drive and passion but also suffer from Teutonic pronunciation and do not field the best teams of soloists.” It is that first, earliest recording which has been remastered here by Mark Obert-Thorn for Pristine.

And the remastering has been done very well, too, especially considering the distortion, pitch problems and noise both extraneous and inherent in the primitive electrical recording process; it has been cleaned up to the extent that we can hear a faithful account of what went on in La Scala nearly ninety years ago, which is essentially a live performance, as re-takes and splicing were out of the question. This recording reveals individual vocal lines among the soloists and the quality of the choir and orchestra; the chorus is full of highly committed, very Italianate voices pulling together very expressively and capturing both the drama of the Dies Irae and the skipping nature of the Sanctus. The orchestra is clearly up to the demands of the score, working under the assured hand of conductor Carlo Sabajno, the Gramophone Company's chief conductor and artistic director in Italy. He is master of the idiom; the Offertorio, for example, goes with just the right swing and momentum too often missing in subsequent recordings.

The soloists feature two singers of such quality that they have almost never been equalled, let alone surpassed. Pinza’s unmistakable bass is ideal and he is scrupulous in his attention to dynamics and phrasing; he is a model of noble authority – and he has a trill. The mezzo-soprano is much less acknowledged but she was a great singer, even if at times she could be more nuanced. Her lower register injects great gravitas into her sibylline utterances.

The tenor has the right timbre but is too lachrymose, with a compulsion to over-emote, especially in the Ingemisco, and he is occasionally both flat and unsteady. His best moments come in the Lux aeterna, and the excellence of that movement is in no small part due to the fact that the soprano is absent from it. She is of the variety encountered more frequently in that era and easily mocked today: a piercing “Minnie Mouse”, with a trilling vibrato and a tendency to shriek which are unfortunate, but she is always audible, able to sing the notes without too many errors and contrasts well with her mezzo partner, so she is not always “frankly very bad”, as distinguished critic Alan Blyth is quoted as grumpily calling her in the notes. Part of the problem with her sound could be attributable to the microphone of the time but not her tendency to pounce and scream. To be fair, she is quite effective when it counts at the beginning of the Libera me and she has the breath and stamina to ride easily the combined forces pitted against her in the Requiem aeternam. If she sounds a tad hysterical in the concluding section that just adds tension to her entreaty; her lower register is impressive and for me her contributions to this final movement go a good way towards redeeming her role here overall.

The main raison d’être of this recording resides in Pinza’s contribution, but of course you can hear him again in the recording conducted by Serafin ten years later, partnered with a better soprano and tenor in Caniglia and Gigli.

Ralph Moore

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