BEETHOVEN: Missa Solemnis in D, Op. 123
Eleanor Steber, soprano; Nan Merriman, mezzo-soprano; William Hain, tenor; Lorenzo Alvary, baritone; Westminster Choir; "Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra"/Bruno Walter, cond. (broadcast of April 18, 1948)
MUSIC & ARTS CD 1142 (F) (ADD) TT: 78:06

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Bruno Walter called the Missa Solemnis Beethoven’s “masterwork among masterworks [that] spoke to me at once as with a prophet’s voice.” That was at age 15, yet he didn’t conduct it until his Munich tenure (1913-22) following the Vienna years with Mahler – sometime, that is, between ages 37 and 44. He conducted it again in Vienna after his flight from the Nazis, before the Anschluss of 1938 made Austria as unsafe as Hitler’s Germany. He came to New York in 1940 after two years in Paris, and by 1943 was such a frequent guest conductor of the New York Philharmonic-Symphony that he was offered, but declined, the music directorship when they cashiered Barbirolli. Artur Rodzinski got the job instead, but quit in a pitched battle with management during 1947, whereupon Walter was importuned to act as musical advisor for two seasons. Subsequently, when Dimitri Mitropoulos was appointed Rodzinski’s successor, Walter, George Szell and Guido Cantelli became a guest-conducting triumvirate for several seasons. A heart attack curtailed Walter’s activities as guest conductor in the ‘50s, although Chicago was a regular pit-stop, in appreciation for which he was invited in 1957 to inaugurate the new Symphony Chorus that the incumbent Fritz Reiner had lobbied for, and persuaded Margaret Hillis to become its director. Walter chose Mozart’s Requiem as the inaugural work but did not return in subsequent seasons; another heart attack decided him to retire to the Los Angeles area, where he died in 1962.

In all of the years after Munich, he led only three performances of the Missa in mid-April of 1948, of which this performance was the last of the series, whose solo quartet included a “Mr. Alvarez” reviewed two days earlier in The New York Times. Whether he was replaced by tenor William Hain or baritone Lorenzo Alvary is not clarified in Mark Kluge’s annotation. My guess would be the latter, a comprimario baritone at the Metropolitan who acquitted himself well in this performance (taken presumably from a master copy of the NYPSO’s Sunday afternoon broadcast) if hardly with the majesty of Alexander Kipnis in Toscanini’s glorious 1940 performance in Carnegie Hall with the NBCSO that Music & Arts recently remastered on CD-4259 (I have their original issue of 1987 with notes by Harvey Sachs, and am curious whether overprominent trumpets have been electronically tamed in transfer). Apropos of that performance, Toscanini came to the Missa even later than Walter – for the first time in 1934 and again in 1935 with the NYPSO, then in 1936 with the Vienna Phil and twice with the BBCSO in 1939. In 1942, as a guest, Toscanini repeated it with the NYPSO, but gave only one more performance (and a recording) in 1953, the year before his retirement from NBC, a version that RCA issued. By then rigidity had replaced the suppleness of 1940, when all of his tempi except in the Credo were slower tham Walter’s of 1948 – in the first two movements only marginally so but markedly in the Sanctus and Agnus Dei.

Walter’s is a characterful reading without solving the problems of tempo and dynamic contrasts in the Gloria and Credo where deaf Beethoven piled Pelion atop Ossa. I know in fact of only two conductors who did so: Toscanini in the 1940 performances (the others from 1934-42 I don’t know), and Robert Shaw in a 1985 broadcast performance with the Milwaukee SO and Chorus! Shaw did not, however, come close to that stunning achievement either in Chicago in 1960 – when he replaced Reiner, who had programmed it for the first time in his 71 years but was felled by a heart-attack one week before the season began – nor in his Atlanta recording for Telarc. Say for Walter that he avoided the ponderousness of two holy K’s who recorded it during his lifetime: Klemperer and Karajan, the latter not just once but twice. Actually, almost every big podium gun of the 20th-century tried his hand at the piece, and now we have the revisionist period-instrument boys (with Gardiner and Norrington vying to beat the speed of the other, but Gardiner still the fastest I know of, at 71:39, compared to Walter’s 77:24 and Toscanini’s 78:00 in 1940).

Walter’s soloists are paced by Eleanor Steber in her prime, with Nan Merriman close behind with that inimitable fast vibrato, while Hain is a commendable tenor of the comprimario school. John Finley Williamson’s Westminster Choir copes heroically, given the period, with Beethoven’s voice-killing demands for extremes of pitch top and bottom, and comparable extremes of volume. The concertmaster is uncredited but presumably John Corigliano, who plays his seraphic solo in the ‘Benedictus” with dignity and control. Even the sound by an uncredited engineer has been brought into focus (as it was not on an earlier pirate), both in terms of balance and character.

All that said, however, if I’m going to hear the Missa it will be the 1940 Toscanini performance with Zinka Milanov, Bruna Castagna, Jussi Bjoerling and Kipnis, a quartet worthy of God, and the same Westminster Choir even more thrilling to hear than the 1948 assembly. But chiefly for Toscanini whose musical arteries had not yet hardened – at 73 in his mature prime.

R.D. (September 2004)