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 Toscanini, cond.
Music and Arts CD-4240 (2CDs) (AAD) TT: 1:39:50


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 of Verdi’s 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, and impact. 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. All told, the 1940 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, both from 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 tempos, 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 doesn’t 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 of breath, 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 source material. 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 of 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)