Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Missa solemnis in D major, Op. 123 (1818)
Heather Harper (soprano); Julia Hamari (contralto); Sven Olof Eliasson (tenor); Peter Meven (bass); Kölner Rundfunkchor; Kölner Rundfunk Sinfonie-Orchester/William Steinberg
rec. 15 June 1973, Saal 1, Funkhaus, Cologne. ADD
ICA CLASSICS ICAC 5054 [74:31]

It’s good to see William Steinberg’s name receiving recognition once again. Only recently Dan Morgan was loud in his praises of his Boston recordings of The Planets and Also Sprach Zarathustra (review) while EMI has just issued a box of 20 CDs, restoring to the catalogue many of the recordings that he made, principally for Capitol while he was Music Director in Pittsburgh between 1952 and 1976. (EMI Icon 0264862). ICA Classics have been playing their part also and this present Beethoven performance is one of several Steinberg issues from this source. This is the first that I’ve heard but it’s a welcome issue because the reading of Missa solemnis is far from negligible.

Steinberg impresses by keeping a firm hand on the tiller. Almost without exception I thought his tempi were judiciously chosen. Perhaps the opening of the Credo is a little on the steady side but I suspect the reason is that Steinberg realises there’s a long way to go in this movement - don’t peak too soon - perhaps he also has his eye on the place, later on, where the Credo theme reappears alongside other parts of the text. If the tempo is too fast there’s a danger that the choir’s words will sound gabbled whereas at Steinberg’s pace enunciation is no problem. There’s strength and energy in this reading of the Missa solemnis. One also has the feeling that Steinberg has an excellent conception of the architecture of the work.

His choir is good. Beethoven makes the most unreasonable demands on the chorus, the sopranos especially, yet the German singers never flinch and I admired the tenors who produce strong, incisive singing yet never force the tone, even in the most strenuous passages. Their colleagues in the orchestra, more familiar to us nowadays as the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln, also serve Steinberg extremely well.

The solo team is a very good one. Anchoring it is Peter Meven (1929-2003), a firm and sonorous bass. He’s very impressive in the Agnus Dei, to which he brings suitable gravitas, and his work throughout is strong and reliable. I can’t recall previously hearing Sven Olof Eliasson (b. 1933) but the Swedish tenor is well suited to this role. He has a fine ring to his voice and his tone is consistently clear and true. With him ‘Et homo factus est’ is a splendid, confident proclamation and elsewhere in the work his contribution is similarly good. The ladies are better known. The Hungarian, Julia Hamari was thirty when this recording took place and so at an earlier stage in her career than her three colleagues; vocally, she was just entering her prime. Her voice is rich and full, though not in the least plummy - the sound is well focused - and she’s in fine form for Steinberg. However, the listener’s ear and attention is caught above all by Heather Harper. Her pristine voice, and especially the gleaming top register, is ideally suited to this work and hers is a commanding presence.

In fact, this is a recording about which not a lot need be said. The Missa solemnis is a peak - and a challenging peak - of the choral repertoire. Steinberg leads a fine reading, showing the value of having a wise, experienced conductor at the helm in such a demanding score. I admired and enjoyed the performance and I’m sure I shall return to it in the future. I hope ICA has access to more Steinberg material of this quality. The sound is good. I don’t know if an audience was present during this performance; I couldn’t hear any extraneous noise and there’s no applause at the end.

John Quinn

A fine, wise reading of Missa solemnis