Verdi Requiem - Arturo Toscanini;  Herva Nelli, Fedora Barbieri, Giuseppe di Stefano & Cesare Siepi  (3-Immortal Performances IPCD 1140)
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Verdi Requiem - Arturo Toscanini;  Herva Nelli, Fedora Barbieri, Giuseppe di Stefano & Cesare Siepi  (3-Immortal Performances IPCD 1140)
C1892. Verdi TE DEUM and MANZONI REQUIEM, NBC Concert, 27 Jan., 1951; ARTURO TOSCANINI Cond. NBC S.O. & The Robert Shaw Chorale with Herva Nelli, Fedora Barbieri, Giuseppe di Stefano & Cesare Siepi; DRESS REHEARSAL, 25 Jan., 1951, Carnegie Hall, with broadcast commentary by Ben Grauer. (Canada) 3-Immortal Performances IPCD 1140. Elaborate 36pp. Brochure features essays by Robert Matthew-Walker, Richard Gardner & Richard Caniell. Transfers by Richard Caniell. Specially priced at Three discs for the price of Two. - 787790581284


“Arturo Toscanini first conducted Giuseppe Verdi’s MESSA DA REQUIEM on January 27, 1902 at the Milan La Scala Opera House, in commemoration of the first anniversary of the composer’s passing. The Maestro’s final performance of the MANZONI REQUIEM took place at New York’s Carnegie Hall on January 27, 1951. Toscanini conducted vocal soloists, the Robert Shaw Chorale and the NBC SO in a concert that opened with another Verdi choral work, the TE DEUM. The concert was given on the 50th anniversary of Verdi’s death. The broadcast of the performance included the REQUIEM, but not the TE DEUM. Toscanini was dissatisfied with the results. And it was only after producers corrected various errors by substituting sections from the January 25 dress rehearsal that Toscanini approved the 1951 Verdi Requiem for commercial release by RCA. It remains the most well known of the Toscanini recordings of the Verdi REQUIEM. There are five other Toscanini Verdi Requiem performances available on disc. Below is their listing, along with the catalog numbers of the issues that offer the finest sonic reproduction:

March 4, 1938, Carnegie Hall, NY: Zinka Milanov, Bruna Castagna, Charles Kullman, Nicola Moscona, Chorus of the Schola Cantorum, NBC SO (IPCD 1009) [C0961]

May 27, 1938, Queen’s Hall, London: Zinka Milanov, Kerstin Thorborg, Helge Roswaenge, Moscona, BBC Choral Society and SO (IPCD 1058) [C1433]

November 23, 1940, Carnegie Hall: Zinka Milanov, Bruna Castagna, Jussi Björling, Nicola Moscona, Westminster Choir, NBC SO (IPCD 1073) [C1463]

April 26, 1948, Carnegie Hall: Herva Nelli, Nan Merriman, William McGrath, Norman Scott, Collegiate Chorale, NBC SO (2-Music & Arts CD-1219)

June 24, 1950, La Scala: Renata Tebaldi, Cloe Elmo, Giacinto Prandelli, Cesare Siepi (IPCD 1016) [C1712]

If pressed to rank my choices of the six Toscanini Verdi REQUIEM recordings, I’d assign them the following order: May 27, 1938; November 23, 1940; March 4, 1938; January 27, 1951; June 24, 1950; April 26, 1948. The May, 1938 and November 23, 1940 performances boast stellar solo quartets and marvelous execution by the choral and orchestral forces. And in each of those performance (and in the 1938 Carnegie Hall rendition as well), we find Toscanini adopting far broader tempos and greater flexibility of phrasing than in later years. With regard to those elements, the differences between the 1938 and 1940 Requiems and the 1951 performance are stunning, and to my ears almost always to the advantage of the earlier renditions in terms of both musical and dramatic impact. That said, the 1951 REQUIEM is impressive in its own right. Though much fleeter and more streamlined in approach, the 1951 REQUIEM never sounds to my ears either hurried or metronomic. It is a heartfelt, powerful rendition that stars three great Italian Verdi singers in their marvelous primes (Fedora Barbieri, Giuseppe di Stefano, and Cesare Siepi), along with a reliable soprano (Herva Nelli) who acquits herself in admirable fashion. The Robert Shaw Chorale and NBC SO give their considerable best for the Maestro.

It is a REQUIEM that never lacks for beauty and emotional power. That impact is redoubled by the knowledge of Toscanini’s love for Verdi and this work (the Maestro’s voice exhorting the artists may be heard often throughout the performance), and the fact that this represents the conductor’s final performance of the REQUIEM. And since the 1951 Verdi REQUIEM offers the best sonic reproduction of any of the six Toscanini versions, it is self-recommending on all counts. I suspect that a great many FANFARE readers already have the 1951 Toscanini Verdi REQUIEM in their collections.

But even if you own the 1951 REQUIEM in a previous RCA issue, the new Immortal Performances restoration merits your consideration and acquisition. While the sound on the IP restoration of the REQUIEM does not represent a dramatic improvement over the RCA edition, it does strike me as offering a more focused and lifelike acoustic. Here, I should also note that the IP restoration incorporates all the corrections to the original broadcast demanded by Toscanini before he would approve its commercial release by RCA. In addition, the IP set provides several additional elements not part of prior RCA releases. These include portions of Ben Grauer’s broadcast commentary, as well as the performance of the Verdi TE DEUM that opened the 1951 Carnegie Hall concert (the TE DEUM included in the Complete Toscanini RCA Collection is from a March 14, 1954 Carnegie Hall performance). The 1951 TE DEUM is a blazing account in its own right, and we are in IP’s debt for making it available. And then, there is the inclusion of the complete January 25, 1951 dress rehearsal of the REQUIEM, later used as source material to correct defects in the January 27 broadcast. It’s a fascinating and treasurable document on numerous counts. Although the dress rehearsal is quite similar in approach to the actual broadcast, it’s fascinating to hear it applied to the more resonant sonic canvas of a Carnegie Hall devoid of audience members. And of course, it’s always thrilling to be a witness (at least an aural one) to Toscanini in rehearsal. Here, the Maestro interrupts the performance on but a few occasions. The first is when the performers don’t achieve Toscanini’s desired momentum leading into the Tuba mirum outburst of the Dies irae section. How inspiring to hear Toscanini, then a few months shy of his 84th birthday, exhorting his far younger colleagues to keep up with him! Here, a bit of the legendary Toscanini temper blazes forth. But it’s clear that the brief flash of lightning is as much a motivational technique as a true expression of anger. For when Toscanini later has the musicians repeat portions of the delicate Hostias, he is as gentle and conciliatory as one could be. A bit of fire does return as Toscanini demands the appropriate articulation at the start of the Sanctus. The overall impression of this dress rehearsal is of a resolute perfectionist and professional, both demanding and receiving the best from his artists. It’s a priceless supplement to the January 27 concert.

Had IP issued just the January 27, 1951 performances of the TE DEUM and REQUIEM, it would have necessitated two discs. With the IP set, you get the performances of the two works plus the January 25 dress, all issued on three discs, but still priced as two. In short, the IP release offers us the fullest and most sonically rewarding document of a concert that meant so much to Arturo Toscanini. Robert Matthew-Walker’s liner notes and Richard Caniell’s essay provide lively and informative reading. The latter includes RCA engineer Richard Gardner’s in-depth account of his collaborations with Toscanini to create the approved RCA issue of the REQUIEM. There are also artist photos and bios, and a reproduction of the poster announcing the 1874 La Scala world premiere of the REQUIEM, conducted by Verdi. This is a treasurable release on all counts, deserving of the highest recommendation.”

- Ken Meltzer, FANFARE, Nov./Dec., 2020

“The most recent Toscanini Verdi REQUIEM I reviewed from Immortal Performances was in FANFARE 42:2, coupled with all four of the PEZZI SACRI. That performance was from La Scala in June 1950; the soloists in the REQUIEM were Tebaldi, Elmo, Prandelli, and (the one shared soloist) Siepi. Prior to that I had covered the BBC performance (with Milanov, Thorborg, Roswaenge, and Moscona) from May 1938. The ‘bonus’ here is a complete dress rehearsal (the word ‘bonus’ seems inadequate, given that it is basically another performance of the REQUIEM, hence the quote marks).

The performance of Verdi’s TE DEUM here is haunting in the extreme. The contrasts between the hallowed tone used by the male voices at the end of the first movement (Te Deum laudamus) and the full chorus in the ensuing Sanctus is mind-blowing. It is so good to hear the choral detail, too, and how carefully the chords are balanced at the higher dynamic levels. Equally excellent is how a ‘halo’ of strings is captured in the concluding Fiat misericordia tua Domine. The close is absolutely spellbinding, with such control over both the ultra-high violins and the depths of the bass chords. Applause is immediate, sadly, so the close does not quite get the chance to hover as it should, but the sheer depth of interpretation here is remarkable. Toscanini had, of course, conducted the Italian premiere of this piece, in 1898.

The reassuring, velvety tones of Ben Grauer transition us to the great REQUIEM. This was a performance that, as Richard Caniell and Robert Matthew-Walker point out, Toscanini was not happy with. It was also the last time he would conduct the work, and was performed to the day on the 50th anniversary of Verdi’s death. The soloists are a superbly matched bunch, all possessed of huge voices capable of soaring over a symphony orchestra, in particular the soprano Herva Nelli (despite a rather slip-slidey Tremens, factus in the Lux aeterna) and the tenor Giuseppe di Stefano.

Toscanini disapproved of this performance because of some slips (some major), and the original RCA release included some shoo-ins from the rehearsal. In fairness, there is an underlying tension in the rehearsal that matches that of a live performance (probably fear-related) which makes the insertion of portions of this into the broadcast eminently understandable. Also, to complicate this performance’s recorded history, it was released in ‘stereo’ by Pristine Classical, but without the insertions as the two microphones were the ‘official’ one and a second one made from inside the hall using not only a second microphone but also a second recording machine. It’s an interesting idea, but the clarity of the Immortal Performances wins out. Caniell has strong opinions on this, voiced at length in the booklet. I assume, at least, that the Pristine release is the product that Caniell denotes when he refers to a ‘well-known purveyor’.

The chords of the opening of the Dies irae are like murderous stabs; while one can resonate with Toscanini that he might have wanted this to be an impeccable REQUIEM, this is certainly amongst the most impactful. What’s more, the recording can sustain the extremes of fortissimo (add as many ‘f’s to your ‘ff’ as you like), it also retains huge detail. The rapid neighbor-note figures in the strings buzz with energy (notably, the brass have tremolo-like writing in this movement too). The brass aggregations are superbly managed (is that Toscanini I can hear, joining in?). Siepi here appears to be at the height of his powers at the Mors stupebit, and he floats beautifully in the Hostias. But it is the structural breadth of Toscanini’s reading that impresses the most, with tempo modifications realized with the consummate authority Toscanini possessed.

Di Stefano is in glorious form, his voice absolutely tireless, and when Siepi takes over at the Confutatis maledictis, it is as if we move from gold to obsidian. But it is to the Maestro that we must bow most deeply; this performance, known for its frayed ends, should actually be known for the rawness of its power. There is a somewhat thunderous sound as the chorus rises prior to the Sanctus, as if there was a sudden infiltration of a herd of wildebeest in Carnegie Hall - just how large was the Robert Shaw Chorale for this performance, one wonders? The choristers are well disciplined, too: the challenges of the Libera me are supremely negotiated.

Any Toscanini REQUIEM tends to leave even the most stone-hearted reviewer a shivering blob of goo by the time its closing measures come around. This one is no exception. To go straight to the dress rehearsal asks much, but it is enlightening to do so with only a sliver of lunch and a dollop of medicinal antipodean soap opera in between. The acoustic seems different, and it is, of course: there is no audience (any orchestral musician will tell you what a difference there is between an afternoon rehearsal and evening concert in the same venue). One hears this particularly at the Dies irae. This rehearsal, a couple of days before the main event, is provided ‘gratis’, which I assume means three discs for the price of two.

Perhaps occasionally there is an element from the soloists of saving themselves (understandable of course, even if the actual event was a couple of days away), but this, in tandem with the full performance that followed, makes this a fascinating document. Toscanini only stops his forces once (not stopping was understood to mean he was satisfied). But when he does stop them, well, let’s just say I’m glad I wasn’t at the end of that. The rehearsal takes up part of the second disc and the whole of the third, where we hear Toscanini work in particular on the perilous opening of the Offertorio. He has words with the brass at the beginning of the Sanctus, too.

Taking the RCA release as its basis (but with some tidied up sonics), Immortal Performances offers not only the TE DEUM but also the commentary, and the complete dress rehearsal. And those make this purchase absolutely worthwhile.”

- Colin Clarke, FANFARE, Nov./Dec., 2020