About this Recording
8.110839 - BRAHMS, J.: German Requiem (Toscanini)

Johannes Brahms (1833 - 1897): A German Requiem


When Arturo Toscanini conducted the performance of Brahms's Deutsches Requiem on this disc nobody then would have been surprised to learn that this was to be his last account of the work. In January 1943 he was 75 years old, and in good health for his age, but no doubt both he and his audiences expected him to be nearing the end of a conducting career which had started over 55 years before. In fact he was active on the concert platform for another eleven years, and the bulk of his recorded legacy was captured, first on wax or acetate discs, and later via the more convenient and versatile tape medium, during that final period.


Toscanini's penultimate performance of the Deutsches Requiem had taken place in London during October 1937, in the first of two concerts with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The conductor had let it be known that he would like the audience not to applaud at the conclusion of the performance, and when the music came to an end he simply walked off the stage, without acknowledging the clapping of those who had ignored his wishes. This apparent display of 'temperament' was lapped up by the press, who were eager to find examples of poor behaviour on the part of the Maestro. But British newspapermen were to be disappointed. However badly Toscanini lost his legendary temper in rehearsal, he always kept it under control in public.


The early 1940s was not an easy time for Toscanini. In 1939 he had taken up residence in New York, realising that for an indefinite period he would never, as a passionate opponent of Mussolini's Fascist regime, be able to live in his own country (he did not return to Italy until April 1946). He was thus not only an exile, but when the United States entered the second world war in December 1941 he also became, technically, an enemy alien. In his professional life there were problems in his relationship with the National Broadcasting Corporation. The NBC Symphony Orchestra had been formed especially for him in 1937, but in the summer of 1941 he refused to lead the orchestra during the forthcoming winter season, feeling that it was overworked, and though he conducted five NBC concerts to raise money for war bonds, Leopold Stokowski took his place as chief conductor, while he conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra in eight concerts, plus a number of recording sessions which took place in February 1942. These sessions turned out to be fruitless, at least until after Toscanini's death, since at the time it was decided that some sides needed to be re-made. But then the American Federation of Musicians, in dispute with the record industry, banned its members from recording after the end of July 1942, Not only had Toscanini apparently expended a great deal of time and effort for nothing, but he would make no more commercial recordings for over two years,


Before the January 1943 performance there were some tensions in rehearsal of the kind which performers under Toscanini had learned to expect. The Westminster Choir, trained for the concert by their director John Finlay Williamson, was an efficient body used by the conductor on several occasions, and before one of the sessions the members 'warmed up' by singing exercises to a "mi-mi-mi-mi" chant. Toscanini was apparently oblivious to this and deep in conversation with one of his officials. But during the rehearsal the chorus failed at one point, and the conductor let loose a torrent of criticism, ending with the sarcastic comment, "Is not enough to sing 'mi-mi-mi-mi."


Herbert Janssen was by far the more senior of the two soloists. He was aged 47 at the time, and had been singing in public since 1922, when he made his debut at the Berlin State Opera. In 1926 he sang at Covent Garden for the first time, and during the next few years he appeared at opera houses in Paris, Lisbon, Vienna, Munich and Dresden, becoming known particularly as an excellent exponent of the great Wagnerian baritone roles (he sang Wolfram in Tannhauser under Toscanini at the 1930 Bayreuth Festival). He also gained a great reputation as a Lieder singer and made many recordings during the 1930s. In 1937 he was obliged to escape from his native Germany, not for political reasons, as is usually suggested, but because of indiscretions in his private life which were incompatible with Nazi doctrines. Walter Legge, who had produced a number of his Lieder recordings, arranged for Janssen to stay in London, and the singer eventually made his permanent home in New York, where he sang with the Metropolitan Opera from 1939 until 1952.


Viviane della Chiesa was twenty years younger than Janssen, and by all accounts she was a strikingly attractive young lady. She was born in Chicago, where she made her debut in 1936 as Mimi in Puccini's La boheme and then took on several French and Italian leading roles. She was also active on the concert platform in oratorio and song, and took part in a number of radio broadcasts. She can be heard in only a few commercial recordings, including the role of the Countess in excerpts from Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro conducted by William Steinberg.


Toscanini admired Brahms's music greatly. He conducted the symphonies and the Haydn Variations regularly, and they appeared in his programmes with almost as much frequency as works by two other composers who were particularly close to his heart - Beethoven and Wagner. Verdi was a fourth composer strongly identified with the Italian conductor, and Toscanini included excerpts from the stage works in his programmes, but they were less suited to the concert hall than orchestral excerpts from Wagner operas. A work by Verdi written for concert performance was the Missa da Requiem, and Toscanini performed both this and another major choral work, Beethoven's Missa solemnis, with some regularity - more so in fact than the Brahms Requiem, which was given by him on only a handful of occasions in the last twenty years of his life.


In what was projected as just another season with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, in 1953/4, it was planned that Toscanini would conduct the Brahms Requiem once more in the last concert of the series, on 4th April. But early in 1954 it became apparent to the ever self-critical conductor that his physical and mental powers were finally on the wane, and he decided to cancel the demanding Brahms choral work and substitute a programme of purely orchestral pieces by Wagner. This concert was known before the event to be Toscanini's final public appearance, and it was tragically marred by a memory lapse on the part of the conductor, partly caused, no doubt, by the stress of the occasion. It was a sad end to a long and highly distinguished career.


Alan Sanders


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