"Von Herzen - Möge es wieder - zu Herzen
gehen!" ("From the heart – may it go – to the heart!");
these are the words Beethoven wrote at the head of his monumental
Missa Solemnis. Whatever the precise purpose of the inscription,
there is no doubting the overwhelming emotional and spiritual impact
of this work in a worthy performance. Carlo Maria Giulini was, in many
ways, an ideal interpreter. His grounding in Italian opera makes him
alert to the powerful dramatic scenarios evoked by the music. But he
was also, of course, a most sensitive conductor in the classical symphonic
repertoire, and his feeling for the architecture of the work is palpable.
So is his awareness of the wonderful textural contrasts that Beethoven
employs, perhaps the most striking being the transition from the Sanctus
into the Benedictus. Here, exultant Osannas give way to a mysterious
Praeludium, scored mainly for lower woodwind and strings, with
quiet organ. As the Praeludium dies away in the orchestral depths,
a solo violin enters ethereally on its top G, accompanied by nothing
more than two flutes – a vision of the Holy Spirit descending to earth
from on high, and sublime in its beauty. Giulini brings this off, and
other comparable moments of intense poetry, with perfect judgement allied
to a great simplicity, which is exactly what is needed. It underlines
his greatest gift as a performer, his humility, and his ability to subjugate
himself totally to the wishes of the composer and the requirements of
the work in hand.
In this quest, he is most ably assisted by the other
performers. The Philharmonia Chorus was at its very best at this time,
and sings magnificently, all parts negotiating the horrendous difficulties
of the choral writing with apparent ease and glorious tone. It is a
great pity, by the way that the inspirational work of their chorus-master,
Wilhelm Pitz, is not credited. His work contributed so much to many
great recordings of this period, such as Klemperer’s Mahler 2, or Giulini’s
own Verdi Requiem and 4 Pezzi Sacri. But let this pass – we should
thank the BBC for issuing this memorable performance.
It has to be pointed out, though, that the circumstances
in which it was recorded were far from ideal. St. Paul’s is a cavernous
building with a notoriously lengthy echo. The engineers did a remarkable
job, but they couldn’t negate the properties of the building. The result
is that the sound is inevitably mushy and confused for some of the time,
and much important detail – the woodwind writing is a special joy in
this work – gets submerged. The microphone placings have also rendered
it somewhat lop-sided, so that the altos and basses of the chorus lose
out in comparison to the sopranos and tenors.
The same is true in the case of the four soloists,
though they make a very impressive and well balanced team. Zylis-Gara
has the most demanding part, with high Bs and Cs in the Benedictus,
and she sings with unforced expression and youthfully fresh tone.
The two disc-set is completed by an account of Schubert’s
c minor Symphony, the so-called "Tragic Symphony". It
is a very immature work, which in no way really lives up to its soubriquet.
But it has many lovely things in it, and also many of Schubert’s ‘fingerprints’
– the delicious melodies, the harmonic side-slips, the sure sense of
instrumental colour etc. It is here given an affectionate performance
by Giulini and the New Philharmonia.
Returning to the Missa Solemnis for a moment,
I suppose the ultimate triumph of the performance is that it makes one
constantly marvel at the awesome imagination which created this piece,
one of the summits of European art. Giulini leads us to that summit
with quiet assurance and consummate skill.