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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Missa Solemnis in D major Op, 123 (1823) [87:52]
Heather Harper (soprano); Janet Baker (mezzo); Robert Tear (tenor); Hans Sotin (bass)
New Philharmonia Chorus; London Philharmonic Orchestra/Carlo Maria Giulini
rec. Kingsway Hall, London 1–10 May 1975. ADD
Mass in C major Op. 86 (1807) [48:11]
Elly Ameling (soprano); Janet Baker (mezzo); Theo Altmeyer (tenor); Marius Rintzler (bass)
New Philharmonia Chorus; New Philharmonia Orchestra/Carlo Maria Giulini
rec. All Saints Church, Tooting, London 15-18 September 1970. ADD
EMI CLASSICS GEMINI 5176642 [71:15 + 65:19]
Experience Classicsonline

I suspect that this reissue of two Beethoven performances by Giulini from the 1970s will divide opinion and the key issue is likely to be that of tempi. Generally speaking, Giulini takes a broad view of both masses. When I first began to listen to the performance of Missa Solemnis I thought I would not like it very much, despite my great admiration for Giulini. However, in time I came to feel that, despite its drawbacks, this performance has genuine stature.

The Kyrie begins at quite a slow pace, but the tempo marking is Assai sostenuto, and the music can take Giulini’s breadth. I’m less sure about the ‘Christe’ section, however. Admittedly, Beethoven’s marking of Andante assai ben marcato isn’t a tremendous help but the mere fact that there is a fresh marking would seem to indicate a different pace and, conventionally, this section is moved forward by most conductors. However, Giulini maintains pretty much the same pulse and as a result there’s a lack of the urgency that Beethoven surely intended. This approach also means that the magical transition back to the opening ‘Kyrie’ material (5:35) sounds laboured and the second appearance of the ‘Kyrie’ itself, which should revert to a slower tempo, doesn’t make the impact it should.

The opening of the ‘Gloria’ is a bit deliberate for my taste but choir and orchestra raise the roof in a paean of praise. One benefit of Giulini’s measured tempo is that the very high-lying soprano phrases don’t sound snatched, as can sometimes be the case. The broad approach continue and, for example, at ‘Pax hominibus’ every phrase is caressed but the effect sounds overdone. The ‘Qui tollis’ is also too spacious, although there’s some excellent work from the solo quartet to admire, with the singing of Heather Harper and Janet Baker giving particular pleasure. But despite the reservations about some of the tempi, I find one cannot but be impressed by the dedication of the performance. There’s a real sense of grandeur at ‘Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris’ and the soloists’ phrasing at ‘miserere nobis’ is tremendously eloquent. Indeed, the whole of this section is full of prayerful conviction. The choir’s tenor section has a superb ring at ‘Quoniam tu solus sanctus’ and the fugue at ‘in gloria Dei Patris’, though quite steady, benefits from a tempo that is not unduly pressed; the performance has admirable clarity and no little majesty. The very end of the movement, when the opening ‘Gloria in excelsis’ is reprised, has a real feel of ecstasy even if, at Giulini’s steady speed the music doesn’t take wing as one has heard in other performances.

By and large it’s the same story in the ‘Credo’. The opening sounds stodgy, to be frank. Yet when we reach the ‘Et incarnatus est’ I greatly admired the veiled tone of the tenors. The slow, mysterious approach is more appropriate to Bruckner, one may feel, but in its own way it’s impressive. When the solo quartet takes over from the tenors the ladies are quite superb, with Messrs Tear and Sotin not far behind in eloquence. Here Giulini and his singers convey the mystery of the Incarnation with a genuine sense of awe and the trilling flute in the background is quite beautiful. Shortly afterwards ‘Passus et sepultus est’ is handled quite magnificently, the music conveying a real sense of the suffering of Christ.

The tenors are splendid once again at ‘Et resurrexit’, after which there’s plenty of energy at ‘et ascendit’, proving that Giulini can get a move on when he wants to. ‘Et vitam venturi saeculi’ is difficult to pace; the conductor mustn’t allow the music to get too fast too soon. I think Giulini judges the pace at the start of this section very well indeed and the gentle singing of his choir is just right. Giulini builds the pace and the dynamics superbly, gradually increasing the tension until the huge climax at ‘Et vitam venturi saeculi’ (track 7, 7:44), where the organ is a telling presence. The ‘Amen’ is also beautifully handled and the solo contributions hereabouts are most distinguished. One ‘amen’ from Heather Harper (9:44) simply ravishes the ear and is immediately succeeded by an equally lovely response from Dame Janet. This whole concluding section of the ‘Credo’ is one of the highlights of the performance.

There is more fine singing and playing in the ‘Sanctus’. Then the ‘Praeludium’ between the ‘Sanctus’ and ‘Benedictus’ (track 8, 4:12 – 6:25) is quite marvellously played. It’s lovingly and spaciously unfolded by Giulini and this passage offers proof, if it were needed, that he was truly a great conductor. The ‘Benedictus’ is distinguished by a sweet, pure violin obbligato. Unfortunately the player is not credited – as should have been done – but I wonder if it was Rodney Friend, who moved from the LPO to the New York Philharmonic later that year, I believe.  The performance of the whole movement is dedicated and very beautiful.

The first note of Hans Sotin’s important solo at the start of the ‘Agnus Dei’ sounds a little unsteady. That may sound like nit-picking but it’s a crucial moment. Janet Baker is, predictably, rock-solid in her solo a little later. Giulini builds the tension expertly and when Heather Harper joins the other soloists (Disc 2, track 1, 4:19) her voice adorns the quartet regally. The switch to compound time for ‘Dona nobis pacem’ is beneficent, as it should be, but the reading gradually gathers strength as the music becomes darker and more dramatic. The demonic orchestral passage (track 2, 5:18) is fiery and weighty and the playing is well articulated. When the voices re-enter there’s a real sense of drama and Heather Harper rides the storm imperiously. As the work draws to a close Beethoven’s demands for peace become modified into more humble prayers and Giulini makes the transition splendidly.

I’ve gone into much more detail than I might normally do for a reissue because I think there are so many pros and cons to this performance. On the plus side the sopranos and mezzo soloists are superb, as is the choral singing, and the orchestral playing is also very fine. Giulini conducts with dedication and skill. However, some of his slow speeds will deter many collectors and the male soloists, while good, don’t match the excellence of their female counterparts. My own view is that the positive points outweigh the negatives and that while this account of Missa Solemnis would not be my library recommendation it is a noble reading in which there is a great deal to admire and enjoy. In the interests of balance perhaps I ought to make readers aware of the verdict of John Steane, a critic whose views on vocal music I greatly respect. Writing of this recording in Choral Music on Record (ed. Alan Blyth, 1991) he says, “Everything here is in a mellow light, the recorded sound dully reverent, the chorus somewhat withdrawn, the speeds slow.” He too admires the female soloists but concludes that there is “something lax about [the recording] emotionally and technically”. Perhaps the recording has been re-mastered but I have to say that I didn’t encounter the same issues over the sound or the placement of the chorus in the aural picture.

The same issues of pacing arise in the performance of the Mass in C but here I feel less comfortable with Giulini’s approach. He seems to view the Mass in C in a fairly similar way to Missa Solemnis. I bow to his experience and musicianship, of course. However, having sung both of Beethoven’s masses several times I’m not sure I agree. To be sure, there are many points of musical commonality but surely, the Mass in C is a musical bridge between the masses of Haydn and his generation and Missa Solemnis? It seems to me that a successful performance of the Mass in C should remind us of this and also that there was a gap of some twelve years between that piece and Beethoven’s initial work on Missa Solemnis. Hearing these two performances in close proximity, I’m not sure that Giulini points up sufficiently the differences between the two mass settings.

The ‘Kyrie’ is taken quite broadly; a bit too broadly, I feel. The music flows up to a point but needs more sense of momentum than we hear I this reading. The ‘Gloria’ starts majestically but, once again, the music really needs more impetus. Later in this movement I felt a similar lack of impetus at ‘Quoniam tu solus’. On the other hand, the subdued opening of the ‘Credo’ is well paced and the light textures at ‘Deum de Deo’ are well executed. The ‘Et resurrexit’ is too steady for my taste; it lacks the urgency that a profession of faith should surely have. Much better is the fugue at ‘Et vitam venturi saeculi’, which is nice and lithe. The ‘Sanctus’ and ‘Benedictus’ go well, with some good work from the solo quartet in the ‘Benedictus’. I was a little surprised that EMI didn’t track these two movements separately. I’m comfortable with Giulini’s speed for most of the ‘Agnus Dei’ but it’s noticeable that he has to make a significant slowing (at track 7, 6:36) before the final ‘Dona nobis pacem’, where the music of the ‘Kyrie’ is reprised. This isn’t marked in the score, though logically, a slight easing of the tempo is needed. This suggests to me that the speed for the ‘Kyrie’ was too slow in the first place. Overall, this performance, though it has many good points, seems to me to be a little too measured and reverential and to miss a lot of the drive that should surely be present in a piece that’s roughly contemporaneous with the Fifth symphony.

As in Missa Solemnis, Giulini inspires his forces to give of their best for him. The solo quartet is good, though, as in the companion work, the ladies significantly outshine the men. The chorus, still trained in those days by the legendary Wilhelm Pitz, sing very well indeed and the orchestral playing is also very good. The recorded sound for both performances struck me as being pretty good; it’s typical of the rich, warm yet detailed sound that one gets from the best EMI analogue recordings of that vintage.

So this set is something of a mixed bag. I wonder if Giulini might have given us more exciting recordings had he been invited to take these works into the studio a decade earlier. Some collectors will find these performances too spiritual and lacking in Beethovenian dynamic. I think that would be an understandable view. On the other hand, Giulini was a great conductor and parts of these performances, the Missa Solemnis in particular, are on a very high level. One can learn a lot about the works in question by listening to them. Neither performance would be a first choice recommendation but they are still worthy of collectors’ attention. Documentation is restricted to a track-listing and a pretty superficial note. There are no texts.

John Quinn



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