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Ludwig Van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Missa Solemnis op.123 (1824)
Lori Phillips, soprano; Robynne Redmon, Mezzo-soprano; James Taylor, tenor; Jay Baylon, Bass-baritone, Mary Kathryn van Osdale, violin
Nashville Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Kenneth Schermerhorn
Recorded at Ingram Hall, Blair School of Music, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, April 21st-22nd 2003
NAXOS 8.557060 [77:11]


"From the heart it comes, to the heart let it go"; the words of Beethoven when referring to his great Mass in D op.123, the Missa Solemnis. It comfortably earns its status as one of the greatest works of Western religious music, even though it is far from being a liturgical mass. It contains many passages that rank among the very greatest and most original that Beethoven composed, as well as two of the mightiest fugues ever written, in the closing stages of both the Gloria and the Credo.

It asks more of its performers than almost any other work of this type. The soloists must all be top-notch and the orchestra must be full of players, and that includes the leader, who have the ability to project their music through the often multi-layered textures. As for the choir: well, the choir simply needs to be superhuman if it is even to survive the colossal demands the composer makes of it, let alone fully realise everything he asks for.

Yet it is a work of such sublime inspiration that it tends to bring such responses out of musicians if they are worthy of the task. What of this Nashville ensemble? The first thing to say is that the Symphony Chorus is a splendid group who sing with a confidence typical of American choirs – a confidence verging on brashness, though they show far too much sensitivity in softer music to be accused of that. They do manage the big fugues most impressively, particularly the passages where the tempo suddenly goes into overdrive. There are problems, though. Under pressure, the sopranos produce an unfortunately shrill tone in their high register. And, once in a while the recording manages to pick up individual voices, indicating a balance problem, which I shall return to further on.

The four soloists are really very good, though the soprano Lori Phillips suffers from the same kind of shrillness that afflicts her choral sisters … and she sings too loud a lot of the time. Mezzo Robynne Redmon sings with fine, firm tone and great commitment. Tenor James Taylor is excellent too, though I am not fond of bass-baritone Jay Baylon’s rather throaty tone. However their quartet singing is often of a very high quality, as for example at the beginning of the Sanctus. For those of you interested in such things, there are places in the work where it is not entirely clear whether Beethoven intended solo or choral voices. The principal ones are the Et incarnatus in the Credo and the Pleni sunt coeli in the Sanctus. Schermerhorn opts for choral voices in the former and solos in the latter.

Conductor Kenneth Schermerhorn clearly has a firm grasp of the work, and handles the architecture of the huge movements very well, with tempi that allow the character of the music to be felt strongly. However, he is hamstrung by the shortcomings of the recording, chief of which is the balance; the soloists are too far forward, emphasising the squally singing of Phillips. The choir is too close for comfort too. The orchestra loses out in all this, so that the powerful impact of the many great moments is crucially weakened – brass are almost out of earshot, while the woodwind detail, which is one of the work’s main glories, is either inaudible or lacks presence. A word though for the beautiful violin playing of the leader in the sublime Benedictus.

There is massive competition in this work, as you’d expect, from, for example Gardiner on Deutsche Grammophon and Harnoncourt on Teldec. But at super-bargain price, this is a very acceptable offering.

Gwyn Parry-Jones


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