Verdi: Messa da requiem, Te Deum
Zinka Milanov, soprano, Bruna Castagna, mezzo-soprano, Jussi Bjoerling,
tenor, Nicola Moscona, bass. Westminster Choir, NBC Symphony Orchestra/Arturo
Music and Arts CD-4240 (2CDs) (AAD) TT: 1:39:50
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In my recent review of Andante’s fabulous reissue of the 1937 Salzburg
Festival Die Meistersinger, I also mentioned this Verdi Requiem, a performance
recorded in Carnegie Hall on 23 November 1940. Both the Salzburg Meistersinger and
Verdi Requiem are of the highest value, for they reveal aspects of Arturo
Toscanini’s conducting not as readily apparent in his
more famous RCA recordings.
Toscanini’s best known interpretation of the Requiem is
the one he conducted on 27 January 1951, to commemorate the 50th anniversary
death. It’s an excellent performance, with a fine quartet of vocal
soloists—Herva Nelli, Fedora Barbieri, Giuseppe di Stefano, and
Cesare Siepi—and worthy contributions from the Robert Shaw Chorale
and NBC Symphony Orchestra. The sound has plenty of clarity, definition,
The RCA CD issue (72373, 2 discs) also includes Toscanini performances
of Verdi's Te Deum and Cherubini Requiem.
If this were the only available Verdi Requiem conducted by Toscanini
we would still be much the richer for its existence. But the 1940 recording,
just reissued by Music and Arts, is a magnificent performance in its
own right, one that provides some stunning contrasts to the 1951
RCA recording. As in the case of the Salzburg Meistersinger, the 1940 Requiem documents
Toscanini’s frequent and masterful of broad tempos. Take, for example,
the opening Requiem and Kyrie. In the 1951 performance,
that portion lasts 7:45. The 1940 version is almost a full minute longer.
recording is five minutes longer than its 1951 counterpart.
But while the earlier performance certainly imparts a greater sense of
breadth, there is no lack of tension. Quite the contrary, I find the
1940 Toscanini Requiem far more compelling. There are some miscues,
the soloists and the orchestra, but very few for a work of this length
and difficulty. Overall the performance has the kind of precision we
expect from Toscanini. But in the 1940 Requiem, Toscanini uses the slower
coupled with a masterful use of rubato, to generate enormous cumulative
tension and drama. In comparison, the 1951 recording, though excellent,
seems more inflexible and rushed.
It’s difficult to imagine a finer quartet of vocal soloists than
the one Toscanini had at his disposal for the 1940 Carnegie Hall concert.
Zinka Milanov, Bruna Castagna, and Jussi Bjoerling were among the greatest
vocalists of their time. Nicola Moscona, while perhaps not in their league,
was a fine singer, with a powerful, focused voice, and admirable musicianship.
It’s tantalizing to think of this recording with either Ezio Pinza
or Alexander Kipnis singing the basso part, but Moscona certainly
let the side down.
In fact, the most uneven singing comes from Milanov. Generally the Yugoslavian
soprano is in the radiant voice typical for this early portion of her
career. But there are also moments of questionable intonation, shortness
and lack of authority in the lower register. The climactic soft B-flat
in the Libera me lacks focus and security as well. On the
other hand it must be acknowledged that the soprano has the most consistently
exposed and difficult music of the four soloists in this work. There
is certainly much to enjoy from Zinka Milanov here, and I don’t
think her fans will be disappointed.
Castagna and Bjoerling are fabulous, singing with passion, radiant tone,
and clear diction. Their contributions are among the finest on recordings
of this music in concert or studio. Moscona gives a solid performance
as well. And the blending of the voices when the soloists sing in tandem
is extraordinary, certainly a tribute both to the vocalists and Toscanini.
Overall it’s hard to imagine a more exciting or fulfilling performance
of this great work (likewise, of the Te Deum performed at the
same concert). In 1986 Music and Arts issued the 1940 Requiem and Te
Deum on CD. That release had sound that was quite clear
and well-defined, albeit with a limited dynamic range typical of recordings
of that vintage. There was also a fair amount of surface noise from the
Music and Arts advertises the new CD issue, remastered by Graham Newton,
as “State of the Art 2003 Restorations.” I assume that Mr.
Newton used the same source material as in the 1986 release. He has done
an amazing job of removing surface noise, while retaining all the above-mentioned
positive aspects of the 1986 issue. Beyond removal of surface
noise, I don’t hear any other sonic improvements in the new release.
Those who already own the 1986 issue will have to decide whether lack
surface noise justifies repurchase (I’m inclined to believe it does).
Certainly, anyone who don’t already own this great treasure should
seek out the new Music and Arts release posthaste.
K.M. (August 2003)