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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Missa Solemnis, for soloists, chorus and orchestra Op. 123
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 the Ingram Hall, Blair School of Music, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, USA, 21-22 April 2003. DDD
NAXOS 8.557060 [77:11]


Beethoven composed his monumental Missa Solemnis to mark the occasion of his supporter and patron the Archduke Rudolph’s installation as the Archbishop of Olmuet in 1819. Beethoven missed the date of the Archbishop’s enthronement by three years and works by Haydn and Hummel were used instead. It was not until 1824 that the Archbishop received the work.

Beethoven had laboured hard over his Herculean task, agonising over the work and subjecting the five movement score to much revision. Tellingly he wrote on the manuscript score the inscription, "from the heart, may it go to the heart." The Missa Solemnis is acknowledged by many as one of the greatest masterpieces in all music and Beethoven was reported to have considered his Missa Solemnis as the crown of his artistic achievements. Not surprisingly, he uses a sacred text for the Missa Solemnis but despite this the score is dramatic rather than religious, overflowing with passion and strength with a real sense of defiant pride.

At one time I would not have looked twice at this CD in a record shop or in a list of new releases. What could a hardly-known orchestra from Nashville in the deep-south of America know about performing one of Beethoven’s greatest and most demanding works? I used to have this Romantic ideal that only the Austrian and German orchestras could play Mahler, Haydn, Beethoven and Mozart; only the Russians could play Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich and only an English orchestra could perform Elgar and Vaughan Williams. I now know that holding onto these blinkered principles only serves to deprive the listener of many superbly performed works. Although an orchestra may have a tradition of playing a home composer’s music it certainly doesn’t have the monopoly on delivering wonderful interpretations. Recent examples of marvellous performances that I have heard on disc include Rimsky-Korsakov from Malaysia, Bernstein from New Zealand, J.S. Bach from Japan and Shostakovich from Italy and Australia.

On this Naxos release, the performance from the Nashville Symphony Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Kenneth Schermerhorn is electrifying with a magnificent blend of white-hot intensity combined with a genuine serenity so rarely achieved in the recording studio. I found the incandescent choral singing to be superb with an abundance of dramatic flair which drew me from one section of the score to the next.

The singing and orchestral playing particularly in the Et resurrexit teria die section of the Credo (track 7) is as fine as I have ever heard in choral performance. Warm and characterful singing from the soloists in the Sanctus (tracks 8 and 9) which is a joy to behold with a real sense of genuine engagement in this wonderful music. The final part of the Agnus Dei, which is the conclusion to the whole work (tracks 10 and 11), has few parallels in sacred music and ends in an atmosphere of spiritual serenity and a triumph for Maestro Schermerhorn and his performers.

Beethoven’s score makes considerable demands on our four well-matched soloists who undertake this considerable challenge head-on, impressively delivering expressive and refined singing. However all the soloists have distinctive vibratos which could present problems for some listeners. The violin soloist in the Benedictus (track 9) Mary Kathryn van Osdale gives a fine if suitably understated performance. She plays a Stradivarius and has a lovely tone providing a really appropriate ethereal background to the solo voices.

On this showing, together with his conducting on three recent Naxos releases in their American Classics Series, Kenneth Schermerhorn, the musical director of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, must be one America’s best kept secrets; a kind of American equivalent of David Lloyd-Jones in the UK. Schermerhorn’s direction has real presence and authority, allowing the pace to flow freely and displaying the necessary emotional intensity.

The sound quality is among the best that I have heard from Naxos. Crisp and clear and remarkably well balanced too. Naxos have struck gold with this release. A truly awe-inspiring performance. Outstanding!

Michael Cookson

See also review by Gwyn Parry Jones

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