Reviews

GHCD 2248/49 – TOSCANINI – Beethoven Misssa Solemnis – Violin Concerto in D major, op.61

NBC Symphony Orchestra, Toscanini – Conductor, Jussi Bjoerling – Zinka Milanov – Bruna Castagna – Alexander Kipnis & The Westminster Choir, Jascha Heifetz – violin

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MusicWeb  Friday May 29th 2008

One of the greatest, if not the greatest accounts of the Miss Solmenis ever committed to disc …
Remastering, like rewriting has a valuable role to play. This is a perfect example. Guild issued this set a good while ago and I reviewed it at the time, but now Robert Caniell has worked on Robert Hupka’s original tape and has effected some rather special results. The review that follows relates to the “first edition” of this release and should be read in conjunction with this opening paragraph, which will update sonic matters. Firstly the missing beat or so in the Concerto, to which I refer in my review, has been corrected. And, graphically, the sound of the Missa Solemnis has been opened up rather resplendently. It was rather dour and noise suppressed with the result that the sound spectrum was limited. The new transfer really lets things rip; the trumpets are piercing in their penetration, and aeration is all. I strongly approve of this new restorative work and it serves to increase the value of the set as a whole. And that’s all to the good as the performance, as noted below, is famously mesmerising.

I can’t imagine that this famous performance of the Missa Solemnis would face many detractors in respect of the fervour and articulacy of its response. It has long been held to be the greatest of Toscanini’s extant traversals and derives from a broadcast in December 1940; the 1953 NBC set was his only commercial recording but we are fortunate that this wartime broadcast has survived, as have an earlier 1935 broadcast in indifferent sound and an impressive 1939 BBC broadcast with Milanov, Thorburg, Koloman von Pataky and Nicola Moscona (BBC Legends BBCL4016-2).

The vivid drama is established immediately by the puncturing trumpets calls. These have given rise to claims that the recorded balance is askew; William Youngren in his notes makes a valiant case for the defence but I think unavailingly. There are deficiencies in the sound spectrum but it could hardly be otherwise in a work such as this, which requires the most acute of balancing. Nevertheless apart from the solo singers, who are forwardly balanced, the Westminster Choir makes a splendid impression. They were obviously well rehearsed by their choirmaster and sound passionately engaged and tightly focused in the Kyrie. The orchestra is equally on top form, responding with decisive power to Toscanini’s breakneck speed in the Gloria – which after a furious start relaxes. Vocally Björling and Kipnis take the greatest honours with their unmatched response to the drama – the former’s entrance in the Credo is particularly telling, as is the latter’s nobility and declamation in the Benedictus. But Castagna, substituting for the ill Thorburg, is also impressive in the Sanctus and Milanov joins orchestral leader Mischa Mischakoff in wondrous phrasing in the Benedictus. The copies utilised do have some scuffs – these are noticeable particularly in the Gloria and the Agnus Dei but the sound is genuinely vivid and immediate. As for the performance it’s incandescent.

Coupled with it is the famous Heifetz-Toscanini recording of the Beethoven Violin Concerto made earlier in the year, once more with the NBC Orchestra. This has last appeared on a Naxos disc where it’s conjoined with the 1939 Heifetz Brahms Violin Concerto conducted by Koussevitzky – I reviewed it on this site and for interpretative matters I would direct readers there. Richard Caniell, eminence grise of the enterprise, notes that this transfer was undertaken as a result of complaints regarding the RCA-BMG CD transfer. So for this transfer they have utilised a commercial set in what they state to be “a better sonic transfer” despite very honestly noting that the originals were “afflicted with sporadic instances of grit and ticks not hearable in the RCA disc.” As well as the grit there are also a few residual thumps familiar to 78 collectors and also, rather more damagingly, the loss of a beat and a half in a side join in the first movement (at 12.42). Of the two transfers whilst I admire Guild’s honesty and ambition it’s the Naxos to which you should turn.

I suspect though that you will have long ago have acquired the Heifetz-Toscanini. If you have the commercial Missa Solemnis I would augment it with this demonstrably superior and blazing performance. It’s one of the greatest, if not the greatest accounts ever committed to disc.
Jonathan Woolf


INTERNATIONAL RECORD REVIEW JUNE 04

Guild is on much safer ground with Beethoven’s Missa solemnis under the probing baton of Arturo Toscanini. This is not the well-known 1953 recording, but a live performance taped at a concert in Carnegie Hall in 1940. The NBC Symphony Orchestra is common to both recordings and on fine form in each, but the Westminster Choir is perhaps a shade less responsive than the Shaw Chorale in 1953. The soloists are another matter entirely. The 1940 team – Jussi Björling, Zinka Milanov, Bruna Castagna and Alexander Kipnis – are in stupendous voice, and much better recorded than their mediocre successors. There are some controversial speeds, but the overwhelming excitement and drama of the music will win over even the hardest heart. This has to be the finest historical recording of the work currently available, and one of Toscanini’s most visionary Beethoven performances. This is the best remastering of the recording I’ve heard: the lapses in pitch in the Gloria and before the ‘Amens’ at the end of the Credo have been fixed, as has the trombone fluff at the very beginning of the Credo

Missa: a demonstrably superior and blazing performance. It’s one of the greatest, if not the greatest accounts ever committed to disc. …

MusicWeb Thursday December 11 03

I can’t imagine that this famous performance of the Missa Solemnis would face many detractors in respect of the fervour and articulacy of its response. It has long been held to be the greatest of Toscanini’s extant traversals and derives from a broadcast in December 1940; the 1953 NBC set was his only commercial recording but we are fortunate that this wartime broadcast has survived, as have an earlier 1935 broadcast in indifferent sound and an impressive 1939 BBC broadcast with Milanov, Thorburg, Koloman von Pataky and Nicola Moscona (BBC Legends BBCL4016-2). The vivid drama is established immediately by the puncturing trumpets calls. These have given rise to claims that the recorded balance is askew; William Youngren in his notes makes a valiant case for the defence but I think unavailingly. There are deficiencies in the sound spectrum but it could hardly be otherwise in a work such as this, which requires the most acute of balancing. Nevertheless apart from the solo singers, who are forwardly balanced, the Westminster Choir makes a splendid impression. They were obviously well rehearsed by their choirmaster and sound passionately engaged and tightly focused in the Kyrie. The orchestra is equally on top form, responding with decisive power to Toscanini’s breakneck speed in the Gloria – which after a furious start relaxes. Vocally Björling and Kipnis take the greatest honours with their unmatched response to the drama (the former’s entrance in the Credo is particularly telling, as is the latter’s nobility and declamation in the Benedictus). But Castagna, substituting for the ill Thorburg, is also impressive in the Sanctus and Milanov joins orchestral leader Mischa Mischakoff in wondrous phrasing in the Benedictus. The copies utilised do have some scuffs – these are noticeable particularly in the Gloria and the Agnus Dei but the sound is genuinely vivid and immediate. As for the performance it’s incandescent.

Coupled with it is the famous Heifetz-Toscanini recording of the Beethoven Violin Concerto made earlier in the year, once more with the NBC Orchestra. This has last appeared on a Naxos disc where it’s conjoined with the 1939 Heifetz Brahms Violin Concerto conducted by Koussevitzky – I reviewed it on this site and for interpretative matters I would direct readers there. Richard Caniell, eminence grise of the enterprise, notes that this transfer was undertaken as a result of complaints regarding the RCA BMG CD transfer. So for this transfer they have utilised a commercial set in what they state to be “a better sonic transfer” despite very honestly noting that the originals were “afflicted with sporadic instances of grit and ticks not hearable in the RCA disc.” As well as the grit there are also a few residual thumps familiar to 78 collectors and also, rather more damagingly, the loss of a beat and a half in a side join in the first movement (at 12.42). Of the two transfers whilst I admire Guild’s honesty and ambition it’s the Naxos to which you should turn.

I suspect though that you will have long ago have acquired the Heifetz-Toscanini. If you have the commercial Missa Solemnis I would augment it with this demonstrably superior and blazing performance. It’s one of the greatest, if not the greatest accounts ever committed to disc.
Jonathan Woolf