Re-Evaluating Toscanini’s 1940 “Missa Solemnis”

IDIS 6731 Copertina.FH11

BEETHOVEN: Missa Solemnis / Zinka Milanov, sop; Bruna Castagna, alto; Jussi Björling, ten; Alexander Kipnis, bass; Westminster Choir; NBC Symphony Orchestra; Arturo Toscanini, cond / Idis 6731 (live: New York, December 28, 1940)

This is the second of Toscanini’s three best recorded versions of this work. The first great performance was the one with Elisabeth Rethberg, Marion Telva, Giovanni Martinelli and Ezio Pinza with the Schola Cantorum and the New York Philharmonic from 1935; the third is the 1953 broadcast with Lois Marshall, Nan Merriman, Eugene Conley and Jerome Hines with the Robert Shaw Chorale and the NBC Symphony Orchestra. I don’t care for either the 1939 London performance with the BBC Symphony or the 1953 studio recording with the same forces as the broadcast, because the vocal soloists are too far recessed in the soundspace.

There is one major flaw in this recording, and that is the microphone balance. For some strange reason, the NBC engineers set up the mics too close to the brass and percussion, with the result that they overbalance the strings and winds. There is also a minor flaw near the beginning of the “Credo” where an overzealous trombonist comes in at the wrong time in one spot. Yet I love this recording for its warmth (the organ is particularly well recorded), its luxurious pacing, its impetuous excitement and the fact that this is the best vocal quartet Toscanini ever had for this work. Granted, I like Rethberg’s singing in 1935 a shade better than Milanov’s and both Pinza and Hines have “grander” voices than Kipnis, but this quartet blends so perfectly that it will astonish you. They sound as if they had been singing this music together for months rather than a few weeks.

This transfer, made by Danilo Prefumo in 2001, is being reissued here in 2017. Prefumo clearly had a first-rate set of acetates to work with: the annoying drop-out in the beginning of the “Sanctus” has finally been corrected, and the clarity and warmth of the sound make one think he might have had first-generation acetates or digital tape copies of the broadcast. Both the chorus and soloists sound as if they are reverberating slightly in a natural acoustic, an aural quality lacking from far too many NBC Symphony broadcasts both early and late.

As for the performance, it is astonishing. Toscanini paces the music almost as broadly here as he did in his great 1935 broadcast, and let’s face it, Björling’s voice blends with the other three singers far better than Giovanni Martinelli, his 1935 tenor, could ever have done. Part of the reason for the almost miraculous vocal blending is the fact that both our soprano and bass here had voices of great warmth and “roundness.” An interesting sidelight is that, so long as Toscanini was alive and active, Kipnis refused to sing this work with any other conductor. In his view, Toscanini alone knew the secret of unlocking the Missa’s full potential. In addition, Bruna Castagna’s phrasing has greater breadth and warmth than Marion Telva in 1935. The violin soloists in the Benedictus, Mishel Piastro in 1935 and Mischa Mischakoff here, are equally fine, creating an otherworldly atmosphere. (Daniel Guilet, whose sweet tone was much different from the Heifetz-like Mischakoff, is also very good in the 1953 broadcast.)

If I had to recommend one Missa Solemnis, it would probably be the live performance from the 1970s conducted by William Steinberg on ICA Classics because of its much finer stereo sound and shaping similar to Toscanini in 1953, but despite the flaws mentioned above I would never part with this recording. There’s something special about it, and now it sounds better than ever.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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