Notes and Editorial Reviews
Toscanini's 1953 performance of the Missa solemnis has always been a subject of controversy. When the old Record Guide (Collins: 1955) discussed the set, its two distinguished authors agreed to disagree. Edward Sackville-West found it "a thing of violent contrasts, feverish energy and a surface passion vociferously proclaimed", while Desmond Shawe-Taylor felt that "for sheer incandescence and drama the performance can seldom have been equalled". Looking at those views today, one could say that they aren't mutually exclusive. Both speak of the intense, subjective, edge-of-your-seat quality that informs the whole of this highly dramatic interpretation. Toscanini almost makes a virtue of those recalcitrant elements that all conductors have to cope with in this work. The awkward corners are negotiated with purpose. The strivings for effects almost beyond the power of even music to express, the visionary, the serene components of the massive work are all incomparably expressed in Toscanini's reading.
Speeds can be controversially slow or fast: what matters is that they work within the context of the conductor's concept because he chooses a tempo for a special purpose, for a stark contrast, say, or to emphasize a detail. But, as so often with this conductor, particularly in relation to Beethoven, he often seems to be seeking some ideal that's in his head and which he knows he may never achieve in reality. In fact, some believe he did manage to come close to it in his 1940 account with the same orchestra but a different chorus, intermittently available (now I see on a Music and Arts CD).
His chorus here is the Robert Shaw Chorale. We tend to forget it was a professional chorus, which explains its virtuoso and tireless response to Toscanini's stringent requirements. When he insists, as so often here, on strict obedience to Beethoven's dynamic requirements-even noting the single triple forte in the Gloria at "omnipotens"-his singers respond, and the NBC Symphony is just as adept at providing a double piano when that's needed. The solo team is unfortunately not a patch on the 1940 lineup (Milanov, Castagna, Bjeirling and Kipnis): the singers are a shade anonymous and sound more so placed too far from the microphone, a disadvantage remastering can't correct. In every other respect the performance, although inevitably somewhat confined in effect, is an improvement over its LP manifestations.
-- Gramophone [3/1991, reviewing the Missa Solemnis]
[I]n the Ninth Symphony Toscanini achieves great heights. The first movement occasionally finds the octagenarian conductor impatiently rough-riding his basic rhythmic pulse, but the scherzo is tremendously virile, the slow movement exquisitely tender and powerful in turn, and the finale, with a good group of soloists and an excellent chorus, fervent and uplifting.
-- Gramophone [5/1990, reviewing the Ninth Symphony]