VERDI: Messa da Requiem*; Quattro pezzi sacri, No.4: Te Deum
CHERUBINI: Requiem in C minor
Herva Nelli, soprano*; Fedora Barbieri, mezzo-soprano*; Jan Peerce, tenor*; Cesare Siepi, bass*; Robert Shaw Chorale/ NBC Symphony Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini, cond.

RCA Red Seal  72373  (2 CDs) (ADD) TT: 2:21:32. 

The Verdi Requiem is undoubtedly supposed to be the "draw" here, but in this collection of broadcast performances, the less familiar works may well be of greater interest.

It's nice to hear the Te Deum, part of Verdi's set of Four Sacred Pieces, played on its own for a change. Beginning with a quiet a cappella male chorale and erupting abruptly into a blazing outburst for full chorus and orchestra, it's the most elaborate of the set, developing a wealth of varied themes with a symphonic sophistication. Toscanini gives the opening plenty of breathing room and injects the rest with a gripping drive, shaping it as a grand, majestic whole. In their best moments, the NBC winds produce an appropriately organlike sound; the short, anonymous soprano solo near the close is a bit tight, but that doesn' hurt anything.

The Cherubini Requiem —this is the one for mixed chorus, as opposed to the D minor one for men's chorus—is a large-scale (the Offertorium alone runs some sixteen minutes), formally "classical" setting of the liturgical Requiem Mass, dramatizing its emotions with an operatic breadth and sweep. There are some imaginative strokes: after a peremptory fanfare and gong crash, the choral entry in the Dies Irae is anxious and hushed, gradually building in volume and fervor. Toscanini's performance is astonishing: this may have been his only performance of the piece, yet he brings it as sure-handed a sense of shape and structure as if it were standard repertoire. From the beseeching start of the Kyrie, every episode draws your interest—by the end, you're convinced it's a masterpiece. Of special note is Toscanini's care over textures, playing off the moving orchestra lines against the sustained, homophonic choral parts.

The Verdi Requiem is by now a well-known quantity, about which veteran collectors will already have their opinions. Toscanini plays it with a taut, straightforward line, adjusting tempos sparingly; the results are often stunning, as in the terrifying climax of the Rex tremendae. Nor does he neglect the music's cantabile quality: the youthful Jan Peerce has plenty of room to phrase the Ingemisco, while the much-maligned Herva Nelli is heartfelt in the spacious "Tremens factus" episode. But the Maestro's direct attack may be a bit too direct for some people. The Quid sum miser feels relentlessly straight, and Peerce is hard-pressed to manage the Offertorio's difficult tessitura at this rigid pace. Even the ritards seem anxiously to be looking ahead to where the tempo resumes. Fedora Barbieri is most impressive in the important mezzo part, and Cesare Siepi, woolly elsewhere, intones "Salva me, fons pietatis" firmly and reverently. The brasses bring striking weight and impact to the fugues.

As expected, the Robert Shaw Chorale sings with beautiful, perfectly blended tone in all three pieces. The monaural sonics, whether from Studio 8-H (the Cherubini) or Carnegie Hall, are vivid: I suspect that the loud opening of Verdi's Dies irae took the engineers by surprise, as its first appearance has a scrawny, distorted AM-radio sound (its returns are better).

S.F.V.(April 2000)