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Verdi: Requiem, Te Deum / Toscanini

Verdi / Toscanini / Nbc Symphony
Release Date: 01/29/2013 
Label:  Music & Arts   Catalog #: 1269   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Giuseppe Verdi
Performer:  Nicola MosconaBruna CastagnaJussi BjörlingZinka Milanov
Conductor:  Arturo Toscanini
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Westminster ChoirNBC Symphony Orchestra
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Mono 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

VERDI Requiem. Pezzi Sacri: Te Deum Arturo Toscanini, cond; Zinka Milanov (sop); Bruna Castagna (mez); Jussi Björling (ten); Nicola Moscona (bs); Westminster C; NBC SO MUSIC & ARTS 1269, mono (2 CDs: 99:49) Live: Carnegie Hall, New York 11/23/1940

A small point, but one important enough to state and get out of the way immediately. The Carnegie Hall concert at which both works were recorded opened with the Te Deum, and then went onto the Read more Requiem. Why not put them on discs that way? The Te Deum is, in fact, anti-climactic at the end, and since Music & Arts could easily have replicated exactly the shape of a Toscanini concert, why not do so? It would give the listener a very easy way to experience the concert as it was given. Yes, I realize that we can, with a little extra work, manage that—but why should we have to?

Okay. That gripe is out of the way. This is Music & Arts’ third transfer of this historic performance (surely the finest of Toscanini’s performances of the Requiem to be preserved, both because of the flexibility and power of his conducting here and the quality of the soloists), and it is their best. There is some congestion and distortion at climactic moments, but overall this is good monaural sound from 1940 and anyone with even a moderate degree of tolerance for historic material will be able to enjoy it. The most important issue for the potential purchaser is how it compares with other transfers of the same performance. ATRA (Arturo Toscanini Recording Association) released it in the 1980s, and this new transfer is far superior in every way. It has greater dynamic range, warmer overall sound, less distortion. Music & Arts issued an earlier transfer virtually identical to ATRA’s, and a later one that was an improvement on its predecessor but is also not as full-sounding as this one.

The major comparison is with Pristine’s transfer. After doing extensive A-B listening, I find myself preferring this new Music & Arts edition, while admitting that it is to some degree a matter of taste. We must remember that we are dealing with 1940 broadcast sound, and not the best from that era either. Pristine’s transfer has a presence and brightness that some will prefer, but which I find somewhat harsh compared to the warmer, darker sonics of the Music & Arts. When doing comparisons between short sections, one might be taken with the greater clarity and more forward impact of the voices on Pristine’s version. Music & Arts lacks that clarity and impact, but in its stead offers a richer and more natural orchestral sound. Over the length of the Requiem the Pristine begins to bring about a certain fatigue, and one’s preference for the Music & Arts grows.

As to the performance itself, I confess to not being the most sympathetic listener to Toscanini’s conducting—even his Verdi conducting. I often find it forced and rigid, lacking in breadth and generosity of phrasing. For instance, although I know many will find this to be heresy, give me Furtwängler’s Otello (or Levine’s) any day over Toscanini’s. I say that not to be deliberately provocative here, but to give some context for my admiration of this performance. Toscanini could fairly be accused of having peculiar taste in soloists (his consistent use of Herva Nelli being a prime example), but here he chose three truly great singers out of four (the bass being the exception). Björling, Milanov, and Castagna are outstanding—Milanov occasionally exhibiting some intonation difficulty but floating her glorious pianissimos unforgettably. Also, those three bring a sense of Verdian grandeur to the performance that seems to affect the conductor, an expansiveness that is not always evident in his work. This seems one of those evenings in the concert hall when everyone on stage inspired everyone else. Milanov is not as glorious as she is in Toscanini’s 1938 BBC performance (Testament SBT2 1362, reviewed in the Classical Hall of Fame by Lynn René Bayley in Fanfare 36:4), but she is plenty good, with both vocal heft and lovely pianissimos. I cannot agree with Bayley’s preference for Rosvaenge over Björling, and the sound on that 1938 performance is significantly dimmer than this, and really hard to listen to. Castagna is close to a true contralto and sings with style and power.

One must also wonder about Moscona’s presence, at a time when Ezio Pinza, Tancredi Pasero, and Alexander Kipnis (to name just three) were active. Moscona was a Toscanini favorite, and to be fair he is certainly more than adequate, but not in the league of his more famous colleagues. His bass is somewhat wooly and not firmly focused, with a heavier-than-ideal tremolo.

As for Toscanini, his general musical approach is evident: slashing attacks, taut rhythms, firm accents, and what I hear as a lack of suppleness in the phrasing. But that flaw is less in evidence here than is often the case, and the overall arc of the piece is projected superbly. Even those not sympathetic to the conductor are likely to find much pleasure here. His 1938 performance is, as Bayley says, even more flexible and more natural in its flow, but it is not easy to get past the sound quality. There are still moments when I find Toscanini’s conducting somewhat hard-edged, even brutal. The slashing approach to the repeated cries of “Salve me” makes those cries sound more like an angry demand rather than a plea.

The Te Deum is a stirring addition to the proceedings, sung and played with fervor, but the chorus sounds a bit raw here, as if they hadn’t warmed up, and the performance lacks the expressiveness found in the Requiem.

This is clearly one of the great recorded performances of Verdi’s Requiem. Is it the single greatest? I don’t believe in such specific quantification. Great music (and this work is clearly great music) is too complex and too multifaceted for there to be a single “greatest.” I wouldn’t be without this, but I also wouldn’t be without the Giulini EMI recording, and probably would fight hard to hold onto my 1939 Serafin recording as well. But those who love Verdi and/or Toscanini should know this performance, because it represents the conductor’s finest work on disc for this composer.

FANFARE: Henry Fogel
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Works on This Recording

Requiem Mass by Giuseppe Verdi
Performer:  Nicola Moscona (Bass), Bruna Castagna (Mezzo Soprano), Jussi Björling (Tenor),
Zinka Milanov (Soprano)
Conductor:  Arturo Toscanini
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Westminster Choir,  NBC Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1874; Italy 
Date of Recording: 11/23/1940 
Venue:  Carnegie Hall, New York City 
Quattro pezzi sacri: Te Deum by Giuseppe Verdi
Conductor:  Arturo Toscanini
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Westminster Choir,  NBC Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1895-1896; Italy 
Date of Recording: 11/23/1940 
Venue:  Carnegie Hall, New York City 

Customer Reviews

Average Customer Review:  1 Customer Review )
 Wonderful recording of the Verdi Requiem April 8, 2013 By Tony Price (Wadalba, New South Wales) See All My Reviews "It was wonderful to listen to this magnificent recording of the Verdi Requiem. Bjorling was at his magnificent best and the whole recording was excellent." Report Abuse
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