Toscanini's commercial recording of Verdi's Requiem, taped in 1951 in Carnegie Hall, was reissued twice on CD by RCA Victor. Those reissues might be difficult to find now, given the severe pruning of BMG Entertainment's classical program. Fortunately, Music & Arts has maintained its loyalty to Toscanini's legacy, releasing "unofficial" performances that compare well to those intended for commercial release. This Verdi Requiem, performed on November 23, 1940 in Carnegie Hall, has been a collectors' favorite for many years, and this brand new sonic restoration by engineer Graham Newton makes it an even more viable alternative to – perhaps even a replacement for – the 1951 reading.
Toscanini was famous for his no-nonsense tempos. Sometimes he drove the music so hard it lost its meaning. In almost every section, this 1940 performance is slower than its commercial successor, and that's a good thing. There is hardly less tension, and an increase in technical security can be noted. The orchestra and the chorus (smaller in 1940 than in 1951) sound more comfortable.
As for the soloists, it's a question of give and take. In 1951, these "roles" were taken by Herva Nelli, Fedora Barbieri, Giuseppe di Stefano, and Cesare Siepi. Nelli, a dependable but only infrequently memorable spinto soprano, is eclipsed by Milanov, who was never more expressive than when she was conducted by Toscanini. (Her "Tremens factus sum ego et timeo" in the "Libera me" is wonderful.) Her performance is far from flawless, yet her emotional involvement is deeper than Nelli's. I also find Björling to be an improvement over di Stefano. The Swede's seriousness trumps the Italian's more exhibitionistic performance. On the other hand, Castagna (a famous "Met" Carmen, by the way) yields to the more authoritative Barbieri, who also blends her voice better in the ensemble passages. I prefer Siepi to Moscona for similar reasons.
In his booklet note, reprinted from 1986, Harvey Sachs alerts listeners to the few musical faults in the 1940 reading – a missed entrance here, a bobbled note there, and so on. (This is, after all, a live reading.) Nothing happens that is terrible enough to ruin the performance. Musicians are only human, even singers!
Although the "Te Deum" preceded the Requiem in 1940, it follows it on these discs. It doesn't differ greatly from the commercial recording, originally broadcast in 1954. Tempos are very close, and they share a sense of tense occasion. Some listeners will yearn for more relaxation. Nevertheless, this is a devout and exciting performance.
Considering its vintage, the sound is impressive – well-balanced and undistorted.
Copyright © 2003, Raymond Tuttle