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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) 
Missa Solemnis
op. 123 (1823) [79:58]
Ingrid Kaiserfeld (soprano); Hermine Haselböck (alto): Wolfram Wittekind (tenor); Liang Li (bass); Stefano Ferrario (solo violin)

Chorakademie der Tiroler Festspiele (choir)
Erl Haydn-Orchester von Bozen und Trient/Gustav Kühn
rec. Auditorium Haydn, Bolzano, Italy, 10–16 October 2007. DDD
COL LEGNO WWE1CD60011 [79:58] 
Experience Classicsonline


Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis was composed for the celebration of his greatest patron Archduke Rudolph, when he was made Archbishop of Olmütz in March 1820. In the event, however, it was not completed until 1823. Beethoven was not overtly religious, and it is the only major religious work of the last ten years of his life with which he laboured from the spring of 1819 to 1823. It is arguably one of the most difficult of his vocal works to perform.
 

This current recording features the Haydn Orchestra of Bolzano and Trento, which was founded in 1960. Gustav Kühn has been their Artistic Director since 2003 and they have recorded a cycle of the nine symphonies; the Missa Solemnis probably being a natural ‘next step’ for this project. The soloists, three Austrian and one Chinese, are from the Accademia di Montegral (www.montegral.com). The choir is the relatively small Choir Academy of the Tyrol Festival who were formed in 2007. 

The orchestral introduction to the Kyrie shows a well balanced orchestra with a pungent sound from the woodwind, typical of Beethoven. The choral entries are strong for such a small yet well disciplined choir. However the solo entries marked piano are sung forte – a common problem with this work. As the movement progresses it becomes apparent that the choir is dominated by the sopranos who exhibit a steely tone when singing forte or louder. This also turns very ‘acid’ when they are high in the voice. The Criste Eleison is the first extended passage for the soloists and individually they produce good legato. Sadly they do not blend, and the soprano often seems to disappear when singing in her lower register. 

In the Gloria, the opening section contains some of the most contrasting music with the ‘Gloria in Excelsis Deo’ sung loud and high in the voices followed by ‘Et In Terra Pax’ hushed and low down. Kühn and his forces manage this well and the disciplined choir give definition to the notes and words in their low registers which can often sound like mutterings with a bigger choir. At ‘Qui Tollis’ he again shows us the detail in the woodwind writing which is well-balanced. Even so, the soloists sound like individuals, each trying to dominate the ensemble, and not an integrated team. A much better sound can be heard in the recording by Harnoncourt where his soloists blend very well and are not afraid of singing piano. Later in the movement the choir sing so full out in the fugue ‘In Gloria Dei Patris’ that entries by each part are obscured and the whole thing sounds just too forced. The soloists launch the Amen, (which is marked piano) at a good forte which is too loud. Try comparing Harnoncourt at this point. This means that the forte entry of the choir with ‘Amen’ loses its impact. From there to the end the sopranos’ acid tone dominates. Compare it with Shaw and the Atlanta Symphony Chorus on Telarc and see how a larger choir can still be incisive but with a much rounder tone. 

And so to the Credo - Beethoven’s great affirmation of faith. We have a very strong opening but the sour tone of the choir’s sopranos soon makes listening an uncomfortable experience, especially as there are many high As and B flats. At ‘Et Incarnatus Est’ the soloists begin to blend better than earlier and the solo soprano’s vibrato is under much better control. Then again, compare this passage and the later ‘Amen’, with Harnoncourt who has a finer line-up of singers, and you can sense a better integrated team giving a much more satisfying performance. The choir show themselves to be excellent when singing the ‘Et Vitam Venturi’ fugue when it starts quietly, but again the tone becomes rasping when they venture into the louder dynamics with excoriating high B flats from the sopranos. Again, Shaw’s larger choir gives a much more rounded sound in the loud passages. The quiet ending of this movement is one of the most satisfying parts of this recording, and indeed should be one of the most sublime pieces of music ever written, with the orchestra carrying the prayer upward to heaven. 

The Sanctus is marked ‘Mit Andacht’ - with devotion - and begins with a solemn tread of strings and trombones introducing the soloists with the word ‘Sanctus’. This section becomes ‘operatic’ with the soloists trying to outdo each other with intensity. When we get to the ‘Dominus Deus Sabaoth’ (marked pp) it is all much too loud. The Hosanna is given to the choir who are strident and their volume is far too high. There follows a Praeludium for lower strings and woodwind which gives way to the Benedictus. This starts with high solo violin and flutes where the sublime end of the Credo is surpassed in a passage of intense beauty. This section sounds very fine with a nice balance within the orchestra and good playing from the leader. However compare it directly with Harnoncourt and it sounds prosaic. With Harnoncout it has a chamber music quality and when the solo singers enter Kühn’s are just bland, with the soprano taxed by the high tessitura. Eva Mei for Harnoncourt soars up to the high C effortlessly, whereas one fears for Ingrid Kaiserfeld’s safety. 

The opening of the Agnus Dei is suffused with foreboding. The low strings, horns and bassoons create a dark atmosphere for the entry of the bass soloist and men of the chorus. Kühn’s soloists soon become overwrought which distorts the music and does not allow Beethoven’s orchestral writing to have its full effect. Even Shaw displays this fault, but Harnoncourt’s soloists are steadier in tone, especially Eva Mei whose singing is poised, restrained and graceful. This is definitely a case of less is more. The B minor ‘Agnus Dei’ gives way to the D major of the ‘Dona Nobis Pacem’, the ‘Prayer for inner and outer peace’ as Beethoven inscribed on the score. It is like a shaft of sunlight breaking through the gloom. There are two interruptions of martial music which disturb this peace. This is handled well by Kühn so when we reach the final Dona Nobis Pacem we feel the peace is hard fought but won. 

The recording is very clear with a natural acoustic, if a little close-miked, which may account for the hard tone from the choir. The booklet is in German and English but no text or translations, just an odd description of the work that focuses on a hospice patient who listens to Alice Cooper and communicates only by blinking. It includes information about the orchestra, choir and conductor. 

Kühn’s interpretation of this work is good without being revelatory, but is severely compromised by the choral singing. While accurate and well defined especially in the quiet passages, the choir tends to raucousness in forte and above leading to the ear becoming weary of the sound. I feel Harnoncourt’s is a better achievement; all the more so as his was recorded live.

Arther Smith


 


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