These coupled recordings, of choral works by Luigi Cherubini and Giuseppe Verdi to the same sacred liturgical text (along with Verdi's musical setting of the "Te Deum Laudamus"), are of the sort that any serious classical music lover "should" hear, but which, after that, probably best are relegated to lower rank and frequency of audition, for the sake of other, better recorded performances. Due to the great stature of Arturo Toscanini's conception of these works of Catholic sacred music, they really do belong, as well as other recorded interpretations of Cherubini's Requiem mentioned further on, in any faithful Catholic's (or other music lover's) sound recordings collection. Arturo Toscanini's conceptions of the works are noble and powerful, for what can be heard through the sonic dampers. Luigi Cherubini's Requiem Mass in C Minor, the more historically significant of the two recorded performances, especially suffers from the sound that the R.C.A. engineers captured poorly in recording Toscanini in these works (as in many others), but holds interest for the power and grandeur of his interpretation of that work.
Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842, so, who still thinks that all famous composers die young, or even middle-aged?) was a toweringly great figure of his times, which spanned long stretches of what in music history are referred to the Classical and Romantic eras. It is appropriate to couple his Requiem Mass in C Minor with the even more famed Missa Solemnis of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), his only somewhat younger contemporary, whom Cherubini greatly influenced, as Beethoven himself acknowledged on many occasions, even to the extent of once writing down that he considered Cherubini to be a composer whose works interested him more than his own compositions did (and Beethoven was far from lacking in self-esteem)! Thus, of the various issues of Cherubini's work, the one that B.M.G. released in harness with music by Beethoven, as in B.M.G.'s "Gold Seal" series, mentioned below, is particularly aptly paired. However, Cherubini's mighty funeral mass surely had much impact, too, on the musical imagination of Giuseppe Verdi, who adamantly insisted that his Italian countrymen respect their own musical past, thus justifying the pairing of Cherubini's C Minor Requiem with the later Italian master's own Requiem, as this B.M.G. "Red Seal" set has done so.
Cherubini was a faithful, practising Catholic all his long life. Even at the terrifying and quasi-atheistic height of the French Revolution (and Cherubini did spend most of his adult life in France), Cherubini nevertheless practised his outlawed and banned Catholic faith, as one of many of France's "underground Catholics". For example, Cherubini's wedding (to Anne Cécile Tourette, to whom he was always a faithful and very affectionate husband, the celebration of their union only repeated afterwards in a civally-contracted rite), was a secret underground Catholic ceremony, when Catholic marriage celebrations were outlawed by an officially unbelieving state (apart from France's own feeble, official, and pagan "civic religion"). Cherubini risked his life and personal freedom in carrying out his Catholic duties in this and other ways during such times!
On the other hand, Cherubini's intellect embraced both the liberal-secular as well as such Catholic aspects. Although he was resolutely Catholic, Cherubini also was among the avant-garde of socially forward-thinking, generous-minded intellectuals of his time. He even was fairly active in Freemasonry (as a number of other important yet pious Catholic composers, e.g. Joseph Haydn, were), and he was the composer who figured most prominently among the followers of the early socialist theorist, Claude Henri de Rouvroy, the illustrious Count of Saint-Simon (who was born in the same year, 1760, as Cherubini himself, but who died at a more usual age for men of his time, in 1825). The truth is NOT that Cherubini was the dourly arch-conservative (or downright reactionary) musician and Catholic that some of his biographers in English have depicted him to be (in essence, incorrecting projecting their own narrowly partisan views upon this composer), but that Cherubini was a Catholic composer of great musical innovation and originality whose mind also embraced and anticipated, well before that pope's reign later in the 19th century, the socially progressive ideas of Leo XIII.
Cherubini's composition of his first Requiem Mass, in C minor, to commemorate (at the of the brief Bourbon restoration) the overthrow and execution of the last Bourbon king near the beginning of the French Revolution which temporarily abolished monoarchy, was no sign that Cherubini was a reactionary; the overthow and then guillotining of Louis XVI had occurred as part of the long years of bloody, violent revolution and, under Napoléon (whom Cherubini dared to insult, even publicly, on several occasions), of imperial militaristic despotism. French citizens of many political persuasions, Cherubini included among them, felt relieved to see the end of these upheavals with the restoration of the Bourbon dynasty (for the coronation of the two kings of which Cherubini composed his two Coronation Masses), in hopes that an era of limited monarchy, responsible to a reasonably democratic legislature, would ensue, to bring harmony to French political and social life. In the event, these hopes were realised only partially, with further changes of government rather shortly to ensue, but such was unforseen at the time that Cherubini composed this Requiem in 1816 (which premiered in 1817).
Cherubini's own daughter once described Cherubini as being a loyal and unfailingly practising Catholic layman, devout but of a broad mind, not narrow in his religious views (any more than he was in his wide-ranging, highly original musical style and in the moderate progressivism of his involvement in public life). How one could wish that there were more devout Catholic musicians like him in this 21st century!
Now, it is time to move on to the music and the recording(s) of it under review!
Of this 1950 recorded performance of Cherubini's Requiem in C Minor led by Toscanini there is an alternative (and earlier) R.C.A. reissue on CD (R.C.A. Victor/B.M.G. Classics 60272-2-RG, two CD set, in the two series, "Arturo Toscanini Collection", vol. 61, and "R.C.A. Victor Gold Seal") to this later and superior release (B.M.G. Classics 74321-72373-2, also a two CD set, in the numbered series, "Arturo Toscanini, the Immortal", vol. XI, and also in the unnumbered series "R.C.A. Red Seal"). The "Red Seal" release here under review couples Cherubini's work with Verdi's Requiem rather than, admittedly more appropriately, with Beethoven's grand mass, as in the "R.C.A. Victor Gold Seal" issue, as mentioned earlier. This "Red Seal" release, for all that, does have superior, more vivid, and smoother sound (although at powerful climaxes it still becomes harshly congested) compared to the "Gold Seal" edition, but the margin of difference is not really very considerable. Frankly, the worst flaw of the original analogue R.C.A. Victor recording, i.e. improper balance at many times between chorus and orchestra, as discussed shortly below, has not been remedied digitally in this improved "Red Seal" series reissue any more than it had been in that earlier issue in the "Gold Seal" series release.
There is also an edition of Toscanini's recorded performance in the "Past Classics" series, as a single "on-demand" CD or as a download, from CreateSpace in the U.S., or, more interestingly, in the U.K. available, in that same series of the same label (without the U. S. of A's excessively restrictive copyright-legal complications inherent in this sort of reissue) from Saland Music/Saland Publishing (SP-422). It comes packaged with a reproduction of the original graphics of the R.C.A. Victor LP record cover. It is, at any rate, competitive with the other two digital reissues and it provides the option, for buyers wishing to acquire Cherubini's C Minor Requiem alone, of purchasing a single CD (albeit one of rather short duration for that format) of only Cherubini's grandiose work, rather than having to confront choosing between sets of two CDs each pairing this masterpiece variously with another large-scale choral work.
The main problem of this recording of Cherubini's toweringly powerful funeral mass is that the orchestra sounds so excessively recessed that far too much of the orchestral detail of the Cherubini's masterful score is obscured or is not audible at all. That is a great pity, for the choral work, prepared under Robert Shaw's superb direction, is as fine as ever accorded this work on the many subsequent recordings of it and deserved to have been featured in a better balanced choral-orchestral perspective. Cherubini's orchestration of the C Minor Requiem Mass, as is true of all of his orchestral writing, is colourful and important to the work's musical development, so that when the work's orchestration is so inaudible as it is in Toscanini's recording, the impact of the work is considerably and grievously diminished; in the case of passages of contrapuntal interplay between the chorus and orchestra, the feebleness of the orchestra's contribution (due surely to musically insensitive recording engineering rather than to Toscanini himself) leads to seriously undermining Cherubini's compositional logic.
Toscanini's was the first complete recording of Cherubini's Requiem in C Minor, a powerful interpretation of it, too, but one which the sound thus cripples, ultimately, to a nearly unacceptable degree. Lire la suite ›