in C is somewhat overshadowed by the later, much more substantial
Missa Solemnis but I think that’s a great pity for it’s
a fine work in its own right. Beethoven was commissioned to
write it by Prince Nikolaus Esterházy II, Haydn’s employer.
It had become the prince’s custom, after he succeeded to the
title in 1795, to commission a Mass setting to celebrate the
name day of his wife, Princess Maria Hermenegild, each September.
Haydn’s last six Masses were composed for these occasions and
several more were written by Johann Nepomuk Hummel after he
succeeded Haydn in the Prince’s service.
However, in 1807
it was to Beethoven that the prince turned and Beethoven, then
at the height of his powers, produced a setting that very neatly
acts as a stylistic bridge between the masses of Haydn and the
much more substantial mass settings that Beethoven and his successors
were to write almost as a matter of course during the nineteenth
century. It’s interesting to place this Mass in the context
of some of Beethoven’s other masterpieces. It came just after
the Fourth Piano Concerto, Op. 58 (1806) and the Violin Concerto,
Op. 61 (also 1806). Despite its much higher opus number, the
composition of the Mass was pretty well contemporaneous with
that of the Fifth symphony, Op. 67 (1807-8). It comes well
before both the huge Missa Solemnis (1819-23) and the
Ninth symphony (1822-4). However, the Mass contains several
premonitions of these two choral works, not least in the often
cruelly high-lying soprano chorus part.
Beethoven had never
written a liturgical work before and one thing is very striking.
At roughly the same time he was composing the titanic Fifth
symphony but the nature of the Mass is rather different. Though
there are several dramatic and exciting moments, a good deal
of the music is reflective and lyrical in character. Thus, for
example, the opening Kyrie is predominantly a gentle prayer
for mercy and the music is of a very different character from
the much stronger pleas for mercy that we hear in the Kyrie
of the later Missa Solemnis. One wonders if Beethoven
viewed the Mass in C as something of a relaxation
from the rigours of some of the other music he was composing
around this time.
This recording by
Matthew Best and his Corydon forces was first issued some eleven
years ago and its reappearance is most welcome. When I first
listened to it I was a little surprised by the tempo that Best
adopts for the Kyrie. This is marked Andante con moto
but Best takes it at a rather stately pace and, for me, the
music doesn’t flow as it should, though the singing and playing
significantly in the Gloria. The tumultuous start is exciting
and is taken at a well judged speed. There are few solos of
any significance in the work – for the most part the soloists
sing as a quartet – but John Mark Ainsley has one of the few
such passages and makes a pleasing impression at ‘Gratias agimus
tibi.’ At the Andante mosso section, ‘Qui tollis
peccata mundi’, we get confirmation that Best has a really good
solo quartet on duty. Here also I appreciated very much the
excellent solo work on clarinet and bassoon. The ‘Quoniam tu
solus’ is suitably sprightly and the choir sings the ensuing
fugue with commendable clarity.
The opening pages
of the Credo are excitingly done and there’s more good quartet
work at ‘Et incarnatus est’. Gwynne Howell’s sonorous voice
is just right for Beethoven and he’s suitably imposing in his
short solo at ‘Et resurrexit’. The vivace section at
‘Et vitam venturi saeculi’ is taken at an exhilarating lick.
Frankly, only professional singers could articulate the music
at this pace but the Corydons are fully equal to that challenge.
They’re just as impressive, in a different way, in the subdued
opening pages of the Sanctus, where the tension is well controlled.
The soloists take centre stage in the Benedictus and they impress
both collectively and individually.
As so often in Beethoven,
the music of the Agnus Dei makes much of its effect through
dynamic contrasts, often quite extreme. These contrasts are
very well realised in Best’s performance; in fact this is a
very successful account of the movement. At the very end Beethoven
reprises briefly the music of the Kyrie. Once again I feel Best’s
tempo is too slow but, oddly and despite my reservation, I find
the conclusion of the work can accommodate the slow pace more
readily than was the case at the outset.
The remainder of
the disc features three Italian settings by Beethoven. The concert
aria, Ah! perfido, is well known. Janice Watson is in
fine form here. She brings appropriate dramatic bite to the
scena, making the most of the dynamic contrasts. In the
opening few minutes of the aria itself she sings with quiet
intensity and is touching in her vulnerability. Later, in the
more outgoing music she’s equally convincing. She’s joined by
John Mark Ainsley for Ne’ giorni tuoi felici, which is
an exercise in Italian word setting that Beethoven wrote during
his studies with Salieri between 1801 and 1802. The trio,
Tremate, empi, tremate, in which Gwynne Howell is also
heard, dates form the same period, despite its high opus number,
and was a similar exercise. Frankly, neither piece is terribly
interesting but Best and his performers make the best possible
case for them.
This is a very worthwhile
disc. The performance of the Mass is a very good one. It doesn’t
quite shake my loyalty to John Eliot Gardiner’s recording with
the Monteverdi Choir but that is given using period instruments.
For a modern instrument version this Corydon performance, recorded
in a sympathetic acoustic is as good as any I’ve heard and I’m
delighted that it’s been restored to the catalogue.