Friday 13 December 2013

Missa Solemnis

Beethoven - Missa Solemnis - John Eliot Gardiner - SDG 718
Beethoven's Missa Solemnis is such a huge work, that performances tend towards the massive as if the theological concerns with which Beethoven was struggling could only be resolved by a chorus of thousands and slow tempi. On this new disc the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique numbers around 70 players, with 45 singers in the Monteverdi Choir, all conducted by John Eliot Gardiner in a performance which is lithe and vivid, but still with moments of transcendence. They are joined by a quartet of soloists notable for their flexibility of voice rather than scale, soprano Lucy Crowe, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnston, tenor James Gilchrist and bass Matthew Rose. Gardiner conducted a whole series of performances of Beethoven's mass last year and this disc is a live recording of the performance that they gave at the Barbican in October 2012, originally broadcast by BBC Radio 3 and now issued on Gardiner's Soli Deo Gloria label

The Kyrie is nicely fluid, with some lovely solo moments, but not without power in the choral utterances. There is also a noted flexibility and transparency to the playing. The Gloria explodes furiously, with Gardiner's lively tempo driving the brilliant sound of the orchestra forward, and this is responded to by the chorus who give a transcendent performance. Gardiner clearly enjoys the contrasts that his forces can give him, accents are strong and there is a powerful feel of onward motion. But there is time for subtlety as well, including a gracious Gratias. The soloists all shape their material finely and their never having to force to be heard over the period forces is a great advantage. The choir rises magnificently to Beethoven's demands in this movement, under Gardiner's leadership they also make it transcendent, and bring it to a glorious conclusion in the fugue that closes the Gloria.

The sense of outrageous struggle continues into the Credo as Beethoven makes ridiculous on the chorus, and here again they responds magnificently. Gardiner's Beethoven here is highly coloured, relishing the hard accents that are possible, but also the quick dying away of the instruments, revealing the singers wonderful focussed tone. They bring a beautifully austere feel to the famous Et incarnatus est with a poised contribution from soloists and flute. Gardiner's approach pays high dividends in the wonderful Crucifixus with strength and tenderness mixed. Then the choral outburst at Et Resurrexit, as an amateur singer who has struggled with this work myself, it is heartening to hear a professional choir clearly pressed to the edge of the possible. And delivering.

Having come through the struggles of belief, we come to a radiant Sanctus with a beautifully controlled and shaped performance from the soloists, breaking out into a gloriously joyous Pleni sunt coeli in which one can pause to enjoy the detail in the singers' passagework. After a contemplative prelude, we reach the Benedictus with its lovely sweet toned solo violin. The darkly expressive opening to the Agnus Dei with bass Matthew Rose and the male chorus has a rather operatic feel to it, it then develops into a finely powerful ensemble. But then something extraordinary happens, with the brass fanfares the anxiety rate of the soloists goes up and the chorus get desperate. This is a brilliantly realised and rather moving of Beethoven's remarkable and anxiety making ending.

Beethoven's intention in writing the mass was to reflect religious feeling and he notoriously had a long struggle with being able to bring the work to fruition. Gardiner and his forces re-interpret the relationship between music and performers, in the light of using period instruments but that simply re-casts the sense of struggle. the performance is edgier, more thrusting and more dynamic, but that reflects the different timbres of the period forces. The result is no less impressive than a performance on modern instruments, and no less transcendent.  This isn't Gardiner's first recording of the work, he recorded it in 1991 on Archiv but Gardiner clearly has not slowed down with age, this new recording is if anything marginally faster.  (He takes 69:58, compared to Klemperer's 79:31, Barenboim's 84:32 and Bernstein's 81:00)

The CD booklet includes an informative article by Stephen Johnson and full texts and translations

This recording has the advantage of being made live which brings out the wonderful edge to the performance. But you are never particularly aware of the audience, and there are moments when it is difficult to believe that it is not a studio recording, such is the quality of the performance. Beethoven's Missa Solemnis inevitably involves an element of struggle, and here Gardiner harnesses that struggle to give us a vivid and highly moving performance.

Beethoven - Missa Solemnis Op.123 [69.58]
Lucy Crowe (soprano)
Jennifer Johnston (mezzo-soprano)
James Gilchrist (tenor)
Matthew Rose (bass)
Monteverdi Choir
Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique
John Eliot Gardiner (conductor)

Recorded live at the Barbican Hall, London, on 17 October 2012. Live broadcast by BBC Radio 3

Beethoven - Missa Solemnis; Gardiner, Monteverdi Choir, Orchestra Revolutionnaire et Romantique
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 13 2013
Rating: 5.0

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