Ludwig van Beethoven: Missa Solemnis, opus 123
Zinka Milanov (soprano), Bruna Castagna (mezzo-soprano), Jussi Björling (tenor), Alexander Kipnis (bass), NBC Symphony Orchestra, Westminster Choir, John Finley Williams (chorus master), Arturo Toscanini (conductor)
Live recording: Carnegie Hall, New York (Dec 28, 1940) – 79’
IDIS 6731 – (Distributed by Naxos of America) – Booklet in English
I was somewhat wary about this re-issue, having once been an enthusiastic buyer of Toscanini recordings until I tired of the boxy sound resulting from the use of Studio 8H in New York’s RCA Building, the National Broadcasting Company’s usual venue for their prestigious orchestra, founded for Toscanini in 1937. However this performance, broadcast from Carnegie Hall, has no such fatal problem.
Arturo Toscanini first conducted the Missa Solemnis in 1934 when he was conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra (NYPO). He performed it a total of 13 times (and then made a recording for RCA in 1953): seven times with the NYPO, twice with the Vienna Philharmonic, twice with the BBC Orchestra, and just twice with the NBC Orchestra. This performance was a benefit for the National Council of Christians and Jews.
A recording of the performance has appeared on various labels, some of them hard to trace: MAPA, Music and Arts, Guild, and now IDIS whose website is currently “suspended”. IDIS stands for Istituto Discografica Italiano and the CD’s skimpy insert, which fails to mention the venue, tells us it was “digitally remastered by Danilo Prefumo at Philip & Cyril Studio, Vignato (Milan)." Signor Prefumo has done a very good job judging from reviews of earlier issues of the broadcast on other labels. For example, in a review of the performance issued on the Guild label, the singers are described as “forwardly balanced” and that there are blurred contrapuntal passages, blaring brass, and that soprano Zinka Milanov bellows and swoops. On this recording, though, the soloists seem rather distant (especially at the start), contrapuntal passages are decently defined, the brass does not blare, and no soloist bellows or swoops.
Most important, what comes across is Toscanini’s overall approach to the work, best described as magisterial. There is a lot of sinewy energy and fireworks in the right places, but it is not rushed. The final note of the Kyrie, for example, is beautifully held, and the gentle passage in the Sanctus with its violin solo (played by Mischa Mischakoff) is simply glorious. While the work’s dramatic contrasts are intensely well-defined, there is an organic unity.
I hope there is renewed interest in Toscanini right now, thanks to Harvey Sachs’s highly praised biography Toscanini: Musician of Conscience. The sound quality understandably falls short of what we now expect, but if you want to explore just what the Toscanini fuss was all about, this recording would make a good start.