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Verdi: Messa Da Requiem / Toscanini, Milanov, Et Al

Release Date: 10/12/2004 
Label:  Testament   Catalog #: 1362   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Giuseppe Verdi
Performer:  Nicola MosconaZinka MilanovKerstin ThorborgHelge Rosvaenge
Conductor:  Arturo Toscanini
Orchestra/Ensemble:  BBC Symphony OrchestraBBC Symphony Chorus
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Mono 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

VERDI Requiem Arturo Toscanini, cond; Zinka Milanov (sop); Kerstin Thorborg (ms); Helge Roswaenge (ten); Nicola Moscona (bs); BBC Ch Society & S O TESTAMENT SBT2 1362, mono (2 CDs: 88:21 Text and Translation) Live: London 5/27/1938

I simply must thank Christopher Dyment for mentioning this performance, along with publishing contemporary reviews of the concert that were virtually love letters to Toscanini and his singers, in his recent book Read more style="font-style:italic">Toscanini in Britain (reviewed elsewhere in this issue). Having heard both the NBC performance of early May 1938 (with Charles Kullmann as the tenor and Bruna Castagna in the mezzo part) and the much more famous one of late 1940 (with Jussi Björling and Castagna), and having disliked both, I had begun to think that Toscanini never really got this music “right” until the famed 1951 performance, which also used portions of the rehearsal (soloists Herva Nelli, Fedora Barbieri, Giuseppe di Stefano, and Cesare Siepi). I was wrong. Despite noisy broadcast acetate discs on which nearly all of the conductor’s forte outbursts sound both muffled and over-boomy, and surface noise that occasionally interferes with the quietest passages, this is an entirely different conception of the Requiem and one in which the chorus, orchestra, and soloists perform with not only excitement but also a suavity that completely eludes the NBC forces, even in 1951.

Pride of place goes to Milanov, whose voice here is more silvery than at any other time I’ve heard her from throughout her long career. I’ve not heard the Requiem performance of March 4, 1938, issued by Immortal Performances, where the lineup consists of Milanov, Bruna Castagna, Charles Kullmann, and Moscona, but I’m only too familiar with the more famous version of November 23, 1940, with Milanov, Castagna, Jussi Björling, and Moscona, and that is not a preferred reading. As I have mentioned several times in reviews of Toscanini’s NBC performances, you often have to pick and choose with them—as much in the early years as in the late years—because despite their being a “hand picked” orchestra of virtuosos, not all virtuosos play well together as a unit; and besides, they were forced by NBC to play on many other of the network’s programs which often overtired them and diluted their expressive abilities. This was but one reason why Toscanini was forced to scream at them more often than he did at the British orchestras, and yet could not always get the smoothness of results that he achieved with the BBC Symphony and the New York Philharmonic-Symphony, two of the three orchestras (the Philharmonia was the third) with which he achieved his most consistently satisfying results. Many of the subtle tempo shifts that Toscanini employed in these three early performances of the Requiem emerge smoothly and well joined in this reading. They do not emerge smoothly or well joined in the early NBC version, but rather sound clumsily assembled, like a Lego tower missing one or two keystone pieces. Moreover, according to the liner notes for the reissue of the 1951 performance on RCA Red Seal, this BBC version is the only one in which Toscanini faithfully observed the notation stendando un poco (slightly drawn out) over the basses’ descending line “teste David cum Sibylla” near the start of the Dies irae.

But there is yet another reason for preferring this version to the ones with Kullmann and Björling, and that is the warmer, more baritonal timbre of Helge Roswaenge’s voice. If one examines, not just with the score in hand but also by ear, the various ensembles including the tenor, only the Kyrie eleison really calls for a bright, thrusting tone in the top range (although the end of the tenor solo, “Ingemisco,” also calls for this). Rather, most of these ensembles demand that the tenor sing primarily in his midrange were he acts as ballast between soprano and mezzo (“Quid sum miser”), soprano-mezzo on top and bass on bottom (“Lacrymosa” and the “Offertorio”), or mezzo and bass (“Lux aeterna”). Very few people seem to realize that even Verdi occasionally wrote music for what one would call a “low tenor” (despite occasional demands up to high B?, this is also true of the music of La forza del destino and Don Carlo ) where a warm, plangent tone is more valuable than the kind of high, bright tenor demanded for Rigoletto, Il trovatore, Un ballo in maschera, or La traviata. Roswaenge satisfies this need, as did Giuseppe di Stefano in 1951. Even though di Stefano’s voice was much smaller, it too had a warm, plangent quality in the midrange. One may also hear how the excellent Nicolai Gedda really did not satisfy the needs of this music in his famous EMI recording with Carlo Maria Giulini.

More importantly, Milanov was in perhaps the finest voice of her entire career in this performance. Even such a Toscanini nitpicker as Neville Cardus stated that he had “never heard finer soprano singing” in his review, which appeared in the Manchester Guardian. Over and over again, while listening to this performance, I was literally struck dumb by the astonishing qualities of Milanov’s singing. Here, but not in the 1940 performance, her top range emerges as pure silver, one might almost say platinum. The top notes seem to go into the stratosphere of the Queen’s Hall as if plucked out of the air—a description often given to Nellie Melba’s high notes, except that Milanov sings with greater musical flexibility and more feeling. At one point she matches the solo violin note-for-note, and again one holds one’s breath waiting for the spell to break. It never does. Ironically, considering her Nordic background, Thorborg is even more passionate in her reading of the mezzo part than Castagna, although both are exceptionally fine, but there is no question that Moscona, too, sounds fresher of voice here than in 1940.

The sound quality is not ideal. For some reason, Testament was unable to use the ostensibly better-sounding transfer of this concert, which Christopher Dyment, in his book, says was recorded via a new Philips “light system” using 7 mm film. The result is unfortunate compression and “blasting” in the more explosive moments of the Dies irae and occasional acetate surface noise underneath some of the quieter passages (such as “Mors stupebit”), though EMI’s engineers did their level best to mitigate the damage. Quite simply, this is a performance that complements the 1951 version, and in my view they are the only two recordings of the Verdi Requiem worth owning. It took a Toscanini to beat Toscanini.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
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Works on This Recording

Requiem Mass by Giuseppe Verdi
Performer:  Nicola Moscona (Bass), Zinka Milanov (Soprano), Kerstin Thorborg (Mezzo Soprano),
Helge Rosvaenge (Tenor)
Conductor:  Arturo Toscanini
Orchestra/Ensemble:  BBC Symphony Orchestra,  BBC Symphony Chorus
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1874; Italy 
Date of Recording: 05/27/1938 

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