Wednesday 27 August 2014

Prom 50: Beethoven Missa Solemnis

John Eliot Gardiner
Beethoven Missa Solemnis; Lucy Crowe, Jennifer Johnston, Michael Spyres, Matthew Rose, Monteverdi Choir, Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique, John Eliot Gardiner; BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 26 2014
Star rating: 5.0

Transcendent performance of Beethoven's masterpiece, the first time John Eliot Gardiner has conducted it at the Proms

John Eliot Gardiner, the Monteverdi Choir and the Orchestra Revolutionnaire et Romantique brought Beethoven's Missa Solemnis to the BBC Proms in a much anticipated late night concert on Tuesday 26 August 2014 at the Royal Albert Hall. The soloists were Lucy Crowe, Jennifer Johnston, Michael Spyres and Matthew Rose.

This was Gardiner's 30th live performance of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis. In 2012 he performed the work with virtually the same forces in a series of concerts, including one at the Barbican, which were recorded live and issued on disc (see my review). Performing in the wide open spaces of the Royal Albert Hall, Gardiner's speeds hardly relaxed but seemed to take account of the acoustic and allow the work to blossom. There were moments when he seemed to have all the time in the world, but the music still kept its vibrancy and urgency.

Gardiner clearly revels in the possibilities that the period instruments give him, with hard accents and strong dying away causing heightened contrasts. The whole performance had a transparency and clarity which is somewhat surprising given the work's reputation for massiveness. There was also the fact that the balance between strings, wind and singers is completely re-set when played on such forces, which meant that there were lots of wonderful moments when you came to appreciate details in the orchestra.

Monteverdi Choir and the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique
Monteverdi Choir & Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique
We were sitting in the stalls at the side of the stage and perhaps this coloured my views, but I really came to appreciated the highly characterful and nutty sound from the bassoons and oboes. The result brought pungent moments like the opening of the Agnus Dei, where the bassoons were complemented by very characterful horns. There were lots of times when I was conscious of the underpinning of the choral/vocal contributions by some amazing dancing lines from the strings.

The performance was full of glorious detail, but it was Gardiner's capacity to weld all this into a single great work which really impressed. Here, he was fantastically supported by his performers. In the first three movements Beethoven really puts his singers and musicians through the mill, as the storms and stresses of Beethoven's struggles with belief and the Almighty are made manifest. Gardiner brought out the music's changeability, so that we did have huge climaxes but these could quickly die away and my abiding memory is of the way Gardiner and his forces brought out the small, poignant moments in the score.

Beethoven uses his four soloists very much like a semi-chorus and Lucy Crowe, Jennifer Johnston, Michael Spyres and Matthew Rose made a very fine ensemble indeed. The four formed a finely balanced quartet, whilst each had distinctly characterful individual voice, with Lucy Crowe plangent and radiant, Jennifer Johnston straight toned and highly communicative, Michael Spyres fine grained Italianate sound and Matthew Rose's wonderfully trenchant delivery. Each had impressive solo moments, but it was the way their ensembles came together in a highly expressive and fluid way which impressed, full of beautifully shaped phrases and firm toned line.

The chorus and orchestra were on superb form. After a wonderfully fluid and flexible Kyrie, Gardiner launched the Gloria like a bat out of hell and it was clear that neither he nor Beethoven were taking any prisoners. The chorus responded vividly, and continued into the Credo which they sang with tireless intensity, clarity and power. the sequence of endless fugues and the sense of striving were both conquered and the performance generated a kind of transcendence. Things calm somewhat in the Sanctus, and thes sense here was not just devotion, but vigorous joy leading to the slow burn of the wonderful Benedictus with a violin solo from Peter Hanson. The Agnus Dei concluded with another kind of struggle as the music alternated between amazing drama and quiet intensity, as if Beethoven could not find the right way to finish. As ever, Gardiner and his forces relished the contrasts, conquered the massive fugues and turned it all into transcendent drama.

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