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Ludwig Van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Missa Solemnis in D, op.123 (1824)
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)

Mass in C minor, K.427 Great (1782?)
Sylvia McNair, soprano, Janice Taylor, mezzo-soprano, John Aler, tenor, Tom Krause, baritone (Beethoven), Edith Wiens, Delores Ziegler, mezzo-soprano, John Aler, tenor, William Stone, baritone
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Robert Shaw
Recorded in Symphony Hall, Atlanta on Feb.22nd-25th and November 7th, 9th, 10th 1987
TELARC CD-80150 [64:50 + 74:09]

Beethoven’s Mass in D, the Missa Solemnis, is one of the greatest summits of choral music – arguably Everest itself. Other works – Mahler’s 8th, Penderecki’s St. Luke Passion - may offer equal or greater technical problems. But to this day, nothing can surpass the demands Beethoven makes on his chorus, in musicianship, virtuosity and in sheer stamina. It is also a work that stands as the culmination of a particular tradition – the masses of the Baroque and Classical era, represented chiefly by the masterpieces of Bach, Haydn and Mozart.

So this coupling is a highly appropriate one, setting the Beethoven alongside one of its most illustrious predecessors, the magnificent torso that is Mozart’s C minor Mass. (Quite where Telarc gets the soubriquet "Great" from, I’m not sure, but we’ll let that pass!) Fascinating, too, to hear Robert Shaw’s reading of the Missa Solemnis; I made the acquaintance of the work through Toscanini’s extraordinary RCA recording of the 1950s, and the chorus then was none other than the Robert Shaw Chorale.

The Toscanini legacy lives on in many aspects of Shaw’s reading. He certainly takes a more leisurely approach than the great Italian, yet he emulates him in his daringly fast tempi for the thrilling "up-tempo" codas to the Gloria and Credo sections. Also like Toscanini, Shaw goes for broke in the big dramatic and emotional moments. The sudden interruption of trumpets and drums in the Dona nobis has the same gripping theatricality, the closing moments of the Qui sedes and Crucifixus sections the same overwhelming expressive urgency.

As you may have gleaned, this is a very fine issue indeed. It is getting on in years, having been first issued in 1987, yet betrays little of that. The sound has an immediacy and a sense of perspective which enhances the work’s epic qualities, and, as so often, Shaw has chosen exemplary soloists. Not only is each outstanding individually, but the many ensemble passages are effectively balanced, the solo quartet singing with each other rather than against, which is so often the case. And what of the Atlanta Chorus? What indeed – this is some of the finest large choir singing I have ever heard on disc. The way they deal with the big fugues is truly breathtaking in the unity of attack and movement; they can produce a massive, intimidatingly powerful sound, yet achieve an intense pianissimo when required. And those tenors! Within five or six minute, they begin the Et homo factus est with perfectly focused soft singing, and lead the way into the Et Resurrexit with a glorious choral shout.

What a work this is, and Shaw and his forces rise to its massive challenges in the most stirring way. I love and admire Gardiner’s CD with the Monteverdi Choir, and it probably remains the front-runner with its outstanding modern recording; but Gardiner’s choir is a relatively small one, the approach is thus completely different – and I love them both!

The Mozart C minor mass is not quite so successful, mainly because these large choral forces don’t work as well in Mozart, and because Shaw sometimes overloads the music, making it ponderous, as in the Qui Tollis section of the Gloria. However, once again, the soloists are outstandingly good – for example, Edith Wiens’ singing in the Et incarnatus, in concert with some lovely playing from the Atlanta woodwind, is of the very highest class.

Two towering choral masterpieces in loving, inspired readings – a very special issue.

Gwyn Parry-Jones


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