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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Mass in C major, Op. 86 (1807)[46:08]
Ah! Perfido, Op. 65 (1796) [13:08]
Ne’ giorni tuoi felici WoO 93 (1801-02) [6:42]
Tremate, empi, tremate Op. 116 (1801-02) [7:56]
Janice Watson (soprano); Jean Rigby (mezzo); John Mark Ainsley (tenor); Gwynne Howell (bass)
Corydon Singers and Orchestra/Matthew Best
rec. Blackheath Concert Halls, London, 23-25 September 1995. DDD

Beethoven’s Mass 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 is excellent.

Matters improve 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.

John Quinn








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