"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.