It is unfortunate
that Beethoven’s Mass in C is so dwarfed by his later and greater
Missa Solemnis that it does not get the attention it deserves.
No small work, the Mass may not have the depth and complexity
of the Missa Solemnis but is nonetheless a fine piece in its own
right. While it shows the influence of Haydn, it is a product
of Beethoven’s mature middle period and in my opinion as fine
as any of the six late masses of Haydn or the masses of Franz
Schubert. Yet it doesn’t seem to get the same amount of exposure
as those unarguably important works. The Mass in C was commissioned
in 1807 by Prince Nikolaus Esterházy II, after Haydn had stepped
down as Kapellmeister, but not published until 1812 because of
performance difficulties and the disapproval by Prince Esterházy.
When the work was finally published the dedication was transferred
to one Prince Ferdinand Kinsky, a friend and patron of Beethoven.
The work is in the usual five movements and is scored for a classical
orchestra, without trombones, to conform to Esterházy traditions
and to the performing forces available to him at Eisenstadt.
The Mass in C has
not received many recordings for the reasons stated above. For
a long time the benchmark was Sir Thomas Beecham’s 1959 recording
which was reissued on CD in the early 1990s. The present recording
by Robert Shaw and his Atlanta forces first came out in 1990 and
received mixed reviews. It has now been reissued as part of Telarc’s
mid-priced Classics series. Shortly after its initial release,
John Eliot Gardiner made the first recording using period instruments.
Since then, there has been a recording, also using period instruments,
whose contents are identical to the Shaw recording, by Richard
Hickox and his Collegium Musicum 90. I have not heard that disc,
but have read that it brings out the Haydnesque elements in the
score, looking back to the eighteenth century. If so, Shaw’s performance
looks forward to the Missa Solemnis. His conception of
the mass is grandiose and his performance big. The stars of his
performance are not only the superb chorus, as might be expected
from America’s then premier choral conductor, but also the well-matched
soloists and the orchestra. The chorus, however, is not always
heard to its best advantage. It was recorded in a more reverberant
acoustic than many of Shaw’s recordings and the singing does not
allow for complete understanding of the words, whereas the excellent
soloists come through clearly. This is not so crucial for the
Mass, where the text is familiar and where Shaw’s control of dynamics
is masterful, but it does lessen the enjoyment of the two choral
fillers, the ‘Elegiac Song’ (Elegisher Gesang) and ‘Calm
Sea and Prosperous Voyage’ (Meeresstille und Glückliche Fahrt).
Nonetheless, overall, Shaw’s performance of the main work is impressive
and is successful in carrying out his conception of the work.
All credit goes to the seemingly indestructible Beethoven, who
can survive a variety of interpretations and performance styles
and still come out on top. As with the Missa Solemnis,
the orchestra plays an important role not only in the tutti, but
also in the quieter moments of the Mass; listen to the winds,
especially the solo horn, in the concluding Dona nobis pacem.
The two fillers
on the CD, if minor Beethoven, make appropriate disc-mates.
The cantata Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, based on
two Goethe poems, predated Mendelssohn’s popular overture by
nearly fifteen years. In its vivacious second part, it anticipates
the later composer’s overture. The other piece, Elegiac Song
was originally intended for four vocalists accompanied by
strings or piano, but works well enough in the arrangement for
chorus. This disc is made all the more attractive now that it
is available at mid-price. It may not be the greatest performance
of the Mass, but it is certainly one worthy to stand with the
best of the period instrument versions. For another recording
using modern instruments, see John
Quinn’s review of Matthew Best’s performance with the Corydon
Singers on Hyperion. Anyone who cares about Beethoven or nineteenth-century
choral music should at least hear one of these versions of the
Mass in C.