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
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.