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Seen and Heard Prom Review

Prom 62: Beethoven: Missa Solemnis (Mass in D): Soloists, Cleveland Orchestra Chorus , The Cleveland Orchestra  / Franz Welser-Möst, conductor.

Emily Magee (soprano)
Yvonne Naef (mezzo-soprano)
Toby Spence (tenor)
Michael Volle (bass)


Beethoven’s slim body of religious choral works is of great variety and quality, but the Missa Solemnis clearly standsat the head of the list. The composer thought it the ‘best of all my works’ and the one that came ‘from the heart – may it return – to the heart’, as he wrote on his manuscript score: his fervent wish to communicate devotion in both performers and audience alike.


With a broadly traditional conception of the work Welser-Möst conducted a performance that was clearly delineated and not overly reverential. The opening Kyrie was stately, with assured playing and singing from the Cleveland chorus. However, a problem was immediately apparent – they seemed rather distant and muddy. The tone was decent, but the volume was lacking and I began to suspect that my seat (stalls, fourth row) was in one of the notorious acoustic pockets that forever curse the Royal Albert Hall as a concert venue.


The soloists seemed to suffer very little, perhaps because of their more forward placement.  Toby Spence was bright toned and insightful with his text, Yvonne Naef similarly so, and Michel Volle supported with a reserved confidence from the bass line. Only Emily Magee seemed somewhat ill-matched with her colleagues, the placing of the voice being more backward in the throat and somewhat blousy in pitch in higher or more forte passages. In quieter ones, her tone proved better focussed.


The Gloria that followed had added impact due to the contrast in tempo and attack that Welser-Möst gave it. With Beethoven being very careful in his tempo descriptions throughout, often changing them to give emphasis to specific sections of text, Welser-Möst showed equal alertness and sensitivity in execution. An exceptionally well chose tempo I, for the allegro vivace allowed beautiful phrasing from solo cello, horns and oboe to come through, as well as make structural sense in relation to the meno allegro and larghetto that followed, with particularly fine blending from the solo quartet. The allegro maestoso had rhythmic bite once again, this time nicely caught in the celli.


The Credo was incisive in the choral singing, though this came across best in piano passages. The fact that chorisers appeared to be holding back during the forte passage was by this stage fully perplexing and annoying. That said, the words ‘et invisibilium’, ‘ante omnia saecula’ (a wonderfully produced pp) and ‘Genitum, non factum’ had real impact, and one could feel Beethoven’s identification with the text when it came to ‘Qui propter nos homines… Descendit de coelis’. The mention of Christ’s crucifiction under Pontius Pilate was almost declaimed by Spence, along with the tender contribution from Naef. The movement’s close was particularly notable for some delicate lower woodwind playing backing the quartet and choir.


The Sanctus was broad breathed and hushed from the chorus, with celli  underpinning, until ‘Pleni sunt coeli’. With a really meditative praelaudium, achieved by adopting a tempo similar to that opening the Gloria, a natural link was made to the Benedictus. Here the marking of cantabile was adopted by the finely spun solo violin line.


As a conclusion, the Agnus Dei featured fine contributions from Volle, by now singing out more, and orchestrally the horns proved suitably prominent. The brief duet passage between Naef and Spence was unearthly at ‘Dona nobis pacem’ and Welser-Möst’s re-assumption of the Gloria’s tempo brought the whole work to a logical and fine conclusion.


So was Beethoven’s fervent wish to inspire devotion within performers and audience alike truly felt? Not really, and for that the chorus must take the main responsibility. On talking to others after the concert, I discovered that my impression that the choristers held back when they should have sung out was a shared one and it seems the acoustic might not after all have been so much to blame for what I heard.  Welser-Möst’s interpretation had much going for it, and although volume is not the be all and end all of this music it is a necessary ingredient of most great choral works. If this performance had been louder, the impact could have been so much greater.



Evan Dickerson




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