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Beethoven, Missa Solemnis: Claudia Barainsky (soprano), Christianne Stotijn (mezzo-soprano), Benjamin Hulett (tenor), Michael Volle (bass), Alessandro Moccia (violin), Collegium Vocale Gent, Orchestre des Champs-Elysées, Philippe Herreweghe (conductor), Barbican, 7 May, 2005 (MB)

It is almost ten years since Philippe Herreweghe released his first recording of Beethoven’s great Missa Solemnis, and in many ways this conductor’s approach remains little changed. That is – and was – a blessing for this performance proved to be both deeply spiritual and a perfect example of how period music making can be inspirational in the concert hall. Tempi are not as fleeting as they are with Gardiner, but nor as they are ponderous as they were with Klemperer, and yet Herreweghe somehow manages to incorporate the virtues of both: there is crystalline clarity given to both the orchestra and the chorus, but there is also a sense of reverence and humility given to the overall concept of this masterpiece that made it a profoundly moving and liberating experience.

Striking throughout this performance was the quite wonderful singing of the Collegium Vocale Gent, balanced to utter perfection so their immediacy and vibrancy coursed through the veins of Beethoven’s vision with a human presence. Their response was never less than meticulous, and the vocal stress points which Beethoven makes on its singers (especially the sopranos) was overcome with the kind of reverence to detail which it is unusual to hear in the concert hall. Their shading, their dynamics and their ability to sustain the anarchic cross rhythms played out against the orchestra were simply unsurpassable. The orchestra itself, proving that vibratoless string playing need not be dry or without depth, radicalized Beethoven’s scoring to chamber-like precision: the furious, upward motivic scales of the Gloria had a Pentecostal glow to them, the woodwind solos – including a magical contribution from the flute – in the Credo added vocal timbres to the orchestration, and the solo violin of the Benedictus, played with judicious vibrato, had a sweetness and shimmering beauty which added a fifth voice to the quartet. The martial fanfares of the brass and timpani were restrained, yet at the same time had a ferocity that bubbled tremulously throughout, pulsing with a constant war-like march, even in moments of profound contemplation and benediction. Antiphonally divided violins sharpened the perspective of Beethoven’s orchestration, just as ‘cellos rose effortlessly from the centre of the orchestra in a brooding, melancholic distillation of darkness and prayer.

All four soloists were outstanding. Barainsky’s effortless soprano soared angelically, and yet remained wholly human, Stotijn’s gorgeous mezzo was a miracle of warm, rich tone, Hulett’s distinctive, defined and intensely lyrical tenor bestrode the orchestra with magnificent power and Volle’s bass excelled in the Agnus Dei. All four brought not just a splendour to their singing but a genuine vibrancy which was at one with both the chorus and orchestra.

Beethoven inscribed on his score of this work, ‘From the heart: may it go to the heart.’ In every sense, this performance was an absolute expression of that sentiment.

Marc Bridle



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)