Reviews

GHCD 2290 – TOSCANINI – Brahms – Requiem – 1943

The Westminster Choir, NBC Syphony Orchestra, Arturo Toscanini, Herbert Janssen, Vivian Della Chiesa, Cliff Engels

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Fanfare – November/December 2004

As in the past, I am confining my choices here to historical reissues that I have not had the opportunity to review in these pages. Paramount among them are two significant items from Guild devoted to Toscanini. The prize of the two is a 1943 broadcast of the Brahms German Requiem, the conductor’s only performance of the score with the NBC Symphony. Sung in English, it has had previous CD releases from Naxos and Memories, but neither comes close to the sonic splendor of this transfer, which is apparently drawn from a pristine set of NBC acetates. With its untraditional pacing (sometimes slower, sometimes faster than the norm), it makes an especially compelling case for the score. The other Guild item offers the two 1947 NBC broadcasts that Toscanini devoted to Verdi’s Otello. It should be noted that if the RCA release of the performance were still in print, Guild’s (despite its inclusion of a third disc featuring rehearsals) would be not only redundant, but less commanding on two counts: sound that is somewhat inferior to RCA ‘s and preservation of some faulty ensemble that was corrected for the RCA edition. But – as that is currently not to be had – Guild’s certainly gives an idea of why many consider the performance one of Toscanini’s greatest achievements.

My other choices involve pianists. Rudolf Serkin ‘s account of Brahms’s towering Hande Variations had an all-too-brief life when it was initially released in 1980. This recent imported Sony resurrection marks its first CD issue. It comprises one of the great achievements of Serkin ‘s later years, and – thanks to the work of Judith Sherman – preserves far more faithfully than do most of his other recordings his characteristic tone. It would have been preferable, however, had Sony elected to fill out the CD with the first (1953) Serkin/Szell collaboration in the Brahms D-Minor Piano Concerto, rather than with the later one in stereo, which has been available for some time in a variety of reissues. Finally, the release of three Beethoven violin sonatas offering a variety of performers commands interest primarily for the account of op. 96 because of the featured pianist – the yet-to-be-knighted Donald Tovey with Adila Fachiri (Joachim’s niece) in a c. 1927 recording. Fachiri sometimes has intonation lapses, but anyone who admires Tovey’s compelling writing about Beethoven should be fascinated by his occasionally free but nonetheless controlled and carefully structured playing. The sound is, of course, restricted, but can be vastly improved with a treble boost that compensates for the excessive filtering of the 78s.
Mortimer H. Frank


International Record Review – December 2004

Legendary Conductors

Only one recordings exists of Toscanini conducting Brahms’s German Requiem, sung in English on January 24th, 1943 with baritone Herbert Janssen, soprano Vivian della SO. Robert Matthew-Walker’s note outlines how Brahms was a particularly important composer in Toscanini’s firmament, and argues the case very strongly for this performance. I urge you to hear it: a most original view of the work (the second movement in particular is immensely impressive), albeit one with the drawback of some warbly choral singing and sound that is far from ideal. It’s typical of Toscanini: gripping, intense and a shade dogged.
Nigel Simeone


Presentation is fine; sound, a real improvement. Performance – for me, uneven.

MusicWeb Thursday September 02 04

It was a surprise to read that Toscanini performed the German Requiem so infrequently. This NBC inscription was fortunately preserved because this is apparently the only time he performed it with the orchestra – there were a smattering of performances with the Philharmonic-Symphony in New York, Vienna Philharmonic and BBC Symphony. It also represents the only known example of Toscanini’s way with the work on disc – he left no commercial recording of it. The concert was part of a Brahms cycle given in 1943 and has been released twice before on CD, to my knowledge – by Memories and by Naxos.

Firstly Guild has utilised copies from Toscanini’s own collection, which he gave to a favoured engineer, Richard Gardner. They differ from the Naxos and Memories sources – notably in the case of Memories’ release, which was afflicted with stereo reverb. Naxos’ release was rather muffled and scratchy. So this is now the best sounding transfer on the market and will be of especial interest to admirers of the conductor’s (I think only Americans call Toscanini the Maestro) way with Brahms.

It’s sung in English; perhaps the sentiment was against German language performance but it will certainly weigh in one’s mind. The opening movement is curiously soft grained but Behold, all flesh is as the grass (as I suppose one should put it) whilst beginning quite emphatically is full of powerful direction and clarity – sectional discipline is tight – even though I must say I find some of the direction wilful and the occasional elasticities unnatural sounding. The Westminster Choir – an off/on body that could be splendid on its day – was on very variable form on that January evening, with the tenors going awry in How lovely are thy dwellings and entries not quite together elsewhere, however sonorously they sing. The NBC strings shine in And ye now therefore have sorrow as does the principal clarinet. Janssen impresses, not least because he has to sing in English, even if Della Chiesa is not his equal.

Some of the printed text is at variance from what is sung (try Janssen’s singing of Lord, teach me and the choral For here we have no continuing city)– which makes me wonder which translation was being used. Otherwise Guild preserve the announcements – they’re always keen to do this – and the presentation is fine; sound, as I said, a real improvement. Performance – for me, uneven.
Jonathan Woolf