TOSCANINI Beethoven: Missa Solemnis (1940 - Milanov, Castagna, Björling, Kipnis) - PACO159

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TOSCANINI Beethoven: Missa Solemnis (1940 - Milanov, Castagna, Björling, Kipnis) - PACO159

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Overview

BEETHOVEN Missa Solemnis

Live broadcast performance, 1940
Total duration: 79:56

Zinka Milanov, soprano
Bruna Castagna,
contralto
Jussi Björling,
tenor
Alexander Kipnis,
bass
Westminster Choir
NBC Symphony Orchestra
conducted by Arturo Toscanini

This set contains the following albums:

Just over a year after completing his ground-breaking 1939 Beethoven symphony cycle of six concerts (PASC551-557, PABX023), which concluded with a live broadcast from Carnegie Hall of the Ninth Symphony and Choral Fantasy (PASC557), Toscanini returned to Carnegie Hall for another special broadcast concert three days after Christmas 1940. The concert in 1939 had been a benefit for the Junior League Welfare Fund; this 1940 concert was given in aid of the National Conference of Christians and Jews.

Toscanini's handling of the Missa Solemnis garnered great praise from Olin Downes in the following day's New York Times:

"If the performance of the mass surpassed that of the requiem in intensity and in grandeur, it is because, after all, there are few compositions in all music that stand shoulder to shoulder with Beethoven’s. It does compass the sublime, in a spirit that is Michelangelesque. But it is seldom delivered in this fashion, because of difficulties almost insurmountable for the singers, and other difficulties, inherent in the nature of the music, which conductors seldom completely solve. Last night the fierce heat of Toscanini's inspiration and integrity of purpose pierced every problem and fused together the creative elements of a masterpiece so gigantic that it is seldom comprehended by either listener or performer.

It is only by a special exercise of the creative will and the prescience of an heroic spirit that such a height is reached. And we believe that only the tragedy of the world today, felt as profoundly as Toscanini feels it, could have moved him to such a deed. We can be certain that he is not unmindful of what Beethoven put in the score that interrupts the tender concluding Agnus Dei with the sounds of war and the supplications for peace.

The Mass was given with a loftiness and almost a grim intensity of purpose which forbade anything but the greatest utterance. When the end came the audience remained for a long time, some respectfully refraining from demonstration, others applauding loud and long.
"

As was the case with the 1939 Symphony Cycle I've had access once again to previously unheard and unused source recording which have yielded significant improved results over previous issues of this historic concert recording. I noted here, as with the 1939 concerts, that the Carnegie Hall sound quality was not on a par with that of the Studio 8H concerts. I can only speculate as to the reasons for this: difficulties in microphone placement for tricky works such as this to record and the quality of transmission lines would be the key components. (I am assuming that NBC cut their archive discs at their own studios using the feed from Carnegie Hall.)

Restoring and remastering this recording has proved trickier than the earlier Beethoven series. I "finished" the remastering several times before in each event returning to earlier incarnations of my work to try and find a more optimal solution that tries to avoids midrange congestion in the choir, retains clarity of voices without suffering too much from the blasting of the exceptionally bright brass, whilst retaining the full sound of the orchestra.

Alas one cannot remix a recording some eight decades after the event but work only with the mix made on the night. Under the circumstances I feel that, one or two overloaded sections excepted, this recording has come out remarkably well. The frequency range approaches full high fidelity at times, especially at the loudest trumpet moments, and for the most part there's very little background hiss or noise. The sample I've chosen here is the Credo - more than 18 minutes of music which encompasses pretty much all of the extremes of the work, from full choral and orchestral peaks to quieter introspective moments with the soloists - to give you a full idea of the sound quality you can expect across the entirety of this remarkable recording.

Andrew Rose


BEETHOVEN Missa Solemnis  in D major, Op. 123

1. Kyrie. Assai sostenuto  (10:49)
2. Gloria. Allegro vivace  (16:56)
3. Credo. Allegro ma non troppo  (18:20)
4. Sanctus. Adagio  (18:02)5. Agnus Dei. Adagio  (15:49)

Zinka Milanov, soprano
Bruna Castagna,
contralto
Jussi Björling,
tenor
Alexander Kipnis,
bass

The Westminster Choir

directed by John Finley Williamson

NBC Symphony Orchestra   
conducted by Arturo Toscanini


XR remastering by Andrew Rose
Cover artwork based on a photograph of Toscanini

Broadcast of 28 December, 1940 - Carnegie Hall, New York

Total duration:  79:56    



BEETHOVEN MASS LED BY TOSCANINI

Conducts the NBC Orchestra in the Work in D Major at Carnegie Hall Concert

Milanov, Thorborg, Bjoerling and Kipnis Sing With the Westminster Choir


Outside of opera there have been, when all is said and done, two musical events which tower over everything that has happened in concert halls of New York this season. The first was the performance of Arturo Toscanini of the Verdi Requiem, some weeks ago in Carnegie Hall. The second was the performance that he directed in the same hall last night of Beethoven’s D major Mass, with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, the Westminster Choir, and an uncommonly well coordinated quartet of distinguished soloists.

If the performance of the mass surpassed that of the requiem in intensity and in grandeur, it is because, after all, there are few compositions in all music that stand shoulder to shoulder with Beethoven’s. It does compass the sublime, in a spirit that is Michelangelesque. But it is seldom delivered in this fashion, because of difficulties almost insurmountable for the singers, and other difficulties, inherent in the nature of the music, which conductors seldom completely solve. Last night the fierce heat of Toscanini's inspiration and integrity of purpose pierced every problem and fused together the creative elements of a masterpiece so gigantic that it is seldom comprehended by either listener or performer.


World Tragedy Mirrored

It is only by a special exercise of the creative will and the prescience of an heroic spirit that such a height is reached. And we believe that only the tragedy of the world today, felt as profoundly as Toscanini feels it, could have moved him to such a deed. We can be certain that he is not unmindful of what Beethoven put in the score that interrupts the tender concluding Agnus Dei with the sounds of war and the supplications for peace.

The Mass was given with a loftiness and almost a grim intensity of purpose which forbade anything hut the greatest utterance. When the end came the audience remained for a long time, some respectfully refraining from demonstration, others applauding loud and long. Very properly the conductor did not return to the stage, from which he hurried when the last note had sounded.


Musical “Miracles” Performed

We have heard choruses ere this perform miracles when driven to them by Toscanini, and quartets, too. He has the qualities of the prophet and seer aflame with his vision, and the clear thinking and firm unshakable hand of the master. When he took the most complex passages at a rate apparently reckless of every purpose save the one of complete achievement, the young singers followed him with unbounded faith and ardor.

But they and their trainers deserve credit for a rarely beautiful as well as virtuoso performance. The B-flats and Bs too came out high and clear. There was a remarkably varied scale of dynamics. Pianissimos seemed to echo mysteriously from afar; fortissimos rang out like the trump of judgment day. But more remarkable was the treatment of the counterpoint, the expressiveness of the inner voices, the interweaving of the choral and orchestral parts, and, always, the white heat of the vision.

What has been said of the chorus holds true in principle also of the solo quartet, consisting of Zinka Milanov, soprano; Bruna Castagna, contralto; Jussi Bjoerling, tenor, and Alexander Kipnis, bass. These singers also had tasks of great difficulty, discharged with somewhat varying degrees of success, but as a whole done so well that it would be invidious to make detailed distinctions. Miss Milanov and Mr. Kipnis were particularly effective.

The performance was given for the benefit of the National Conference of Christians and Jews. The hall was packed. It is good to think that thanks to the radio the message of the Mass was made known to millions who listened in other places. They, too, received the heritage of Beethoven.


Olin Downes
The New York Times, 29 December 1940

Fanfare magazine review

Jussi Björling is simply beyond miraculous

I will open by confessing to a bit of heresy. Despite the immense fame of this performance, I heretofore had not been particularly taken by it. I found the sound quality disagreeably harsh, even in the best previous remasterings (Guild 2004 and Music & Arts 2011); I’m not the huge fan of Zinka Milanov that some folks are (though I certainly don’t discount her merits); and contrary to many critics I preferred Toscanini’s interpretive approach in his two earlier surviving performances from 1935 and 1939 (the latter also with Milanov, who is good but not at her very best there). But hearing a sample sound clip of this new remastering from Andrew Rose at Pristine Audio swept away all reservations and led me to plead for a review copy. Much of the harshness has been removed or mitigated, and there is a slight extra touch of clarity to instrumental and vocal lines as well.

The praises of this rendition have been sung so often before by so many others that I will keep my own remarks brief. This is Toscanini at his very greatest: dramatically incisive and compelling, exercising iron discipline in service of the score without any seeking for superfluous effects. The overall approach is large-scale and operatic, and yet it remains devotional in spirit as well. Unlike in some of his performances, there is never any sense of anything being pushed or rushed; many passages are allowed to breathe expansively, and attention is particularly drawn to how often he makes an impact through quiet understatement rather than blazing histrionics. (Much of the Benedictus illustrates this.) Except for a brief flubbed trumpet entrance at the beginning of the Credo (one wishes that this had been quietly corrected), the chorus and orchestra sing and play with razor-sharp discipline; Mischa Mischakoff excels in his extended solos in the Benedictus. For many collectors, it is the stellar quartet that makes this truly special. Milanov is in radiant form, with her trademark easily floated high notes. It speaks volumes of the quality of singers available to Toscanini that the great Bruna Castagna could step in for an indisposed Kerstin Thorborg on short notice; unlike in the Ninth Symphony, where the alto gets the short end of the vocal stick and is all but anonymous, here she has many of the plum lines, and Castagna is magnificent in every way. But the real amazement comes with the two male vocalists. No other basso has the sepulchral tones and vocal heft here of Alexander Kipnis, and his intoning of the opening of the Agnus Dei is the very epitome of fearful despair.

But, saving the best for last, Jussi Björling is simply beyond miraculous. If asked to select a test spot for judging a performance of this work, I suspect that most hearers would go for one of the big climaxes—the fugal close of the Gloria, the Pleni sunt coeli of the Benedictus, the desperately imploring reiterations of Agnus Dei! at the martial irruption halfway through the eponymous movement. For me, however, possibly the most critical point in the score is in the Credo, with the tenor solo entry at the et incarnatus est. All time and nature stand still in rapt silence at this juncture, beholding and contemplating the mystery of the Incarnation, God made man, climaxing in the tenor’s emphatic declaration et homo factus est. Heretofore my benchmark for this moment has been the little-known but excellent William Hain, in the 1948 New York Philharmonic broadcast under Bruno Walter; but Björling obliterates every memory of any rival here, with singing of utterly heart-rending beauty and expressiveness. He alone—indeed, this section of the performance alone—makes acquisition of this recording indispensible.

There are a few minor shortcomings. Toscanini’s usual fault in this work of having the trumpets play far too loudly is present in spades. (Contrary to the claims of some critics, I do not think this is due to faulty microphone placement, as it occurs in all of his performances.) The closing fugal section of the Gloria is metrically a bit stiff; the closing measures of the Agnus Dei are too clipped and abrupt (though exceedingly few conductors have made that ending fully convincing). But would that so many more performances had so little about which to quibble. Without question, this is a performance that, in his standard-setting new remastering, amply deserves its niche in the Classical Hall of Fame.


James A. Altena


This article originally appeared in Issue 43:1 (Sept/Oct 2019) of Fanfare Magazine.