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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Mass in C major, Op.86 (1807) [47:27]
Elegisher Gesang, Op. 118 (1814) [7:31]
Meeresstille und Glückliche Fahrt, Op. 112 (1815) [7:38]
Henriette Schellenberg (soprano); Marietta Simpson (mezzo); Jon Humphrey (tenor); Myron Myers (bass)
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Robert Shaw
rec. 6-7 November 1989; 7-8 May 1990, Symphony Hall, Atlanta, Georgia
Texts and translations into English included. DDD
TELARC CD-80248 [63:17] 


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. 

Leslie Wright



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