RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Missa Solemnis in D major, Op. 123 (1819-23) [85:19]
Marlis Petersen (soprano); Elisabeth Kulman (contralto); Werner Güra (tenor); Gerald Finley (bass)
Netherlands Radio Choir; Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
rec. live, Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, 19-25 April 2012
C MAJOR 712704 BLU-RAY [99:00]
This is a special performance of Beethoven’s great, if rather unwieldy, late mass.
In order for the work to convince over its 85-minute span, you need to believe in what Beethoven was attempting to accomplish, both in the sacred and secular sphere. Harnoncourt accomplishes this as well as I’ve ever heard. He does not slight individual passages of real beauty, but also sees the whole picture. His is not a thrilling, spontaneous account in the Bernstein mold. My favorite version until now has been Bernstein’s first recording with the New York Philharmonic, rather than his later one with the Concertgebouw. Harnoncourt’s interpretation is not the monumental sort that Klemperer’s famous account is, nor is it Beethoven-lite as is Gardiner’s period instrument recording. Yet, in a sense it has elements of all of the above. Certainly the Gloria thrills nearly as much as Bernstein’s does and the Kyrie is as deeply felt as Klemperer’s. The sparing use of vibrato in the strings and use of hard sticks on the timpani owe much to period practice, though Harnoncourt’s forces are larger than Gardiner’s - especially the choir.
Harnoncourt is a past master when it comes to period performance. He has tempered this in recent years, but vestiges of his former ways occasionally turn up in this performance. The emphatic stress on the first syllable of “credo” is a good example, as is, in a lesser way, the accent on the first syllable of “pacem”. In the past, this practice could detract from the performance as a whole. Here it is more subtle and seems of a piece with the conductor’s interpretation. As James Jolly points out in the booklet notes, this performance “emphasises the aspect of spiritual communion and does so with heart-stopping intensity.”
Watching and listening to this blu-ray moved me immensely. I expected nothing less from the wonderful orchestra, but the choir surpassed my expectations. What a beautifully blended sound they make and nowhere more so than in the “dona nobis pacem” refrains. Absolutely spine-tingling moments! The four well-matched soloists are superb both in their individual solos and as a group - less operatic than some others I’ve heard, including Bernstein’s, and all the better for it.
Visually, the production is also a success. Harnoncourt divides the violins on opposite sides of the podium with the other strings in front of him in a semi-circle, then the winds and brass, with the timpani at the back right and the soloists standing in front of the chorus. This arrangement seems to aid in clarity of the inner parts of the score. The diction of both chorus and orchestra is also exemplary. Harnoncourt, visibly moved by what his performers have accomplished, takes particularly long pauses after the Gloria and Credo. He sits down as if in meditation for nearly two minutes after each of these sections before resuming his place on the podium.
The total timing of the mass as indicated in the booklet is nearly 90 minutes, of which over four minutes are pauses between the sections. Thus, the timing of the mass I listed in the head note is the actual playing time without pauses.
The camerawork is some of the best I have seen in such concert videos. No section of the choir or orchestra has been slighted. When there is a solo the camera usually focuses on the soloist, whether vocalist or instrumentalist. There are several shots of the performers as a whole and more of Harnoncourt conducting, but those are not overdone. The video director, Joost Honselaar, deserves much credit for this production.
Technically, the blu-ray video is first-rate both in sharpness and colour and the sound also leaves nothing to be desired. I listened to the disc separately on my stereo equipment without video and was impressed with the quality - as to dynamic range, depth of sound, and clarity.
Included on the disc are the usual trailers, this time with the following four: Tutto Verdi, in celebration of the 200th anniversary; Beethoven symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic and Christian Thielemann; Haydn’s rarely performed opera Il Mondo della Luna with Harnoncourt and the Theater an der Wien - the most enticing of the trailers - and Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail with soloists of the Gran Theatre del Liceu under Ivor Bolton, staged by Christof Loy.
The booklet has a single note by Gramophone’s James Jolly that is informative, but reads more like a review of the performance than a discussion of the work.
In sum, there are many well-known and highly respected performances of Beethoven’s choral masterpiece available on CD, including Harnoncourt’s earlier performance, but I cannot imagine any surpassing this new one especially when it comes to the visual medium. As video and audio this represents state of the art.
Harnoncourt’s Missa Solemnis is state of the art as video and audio… a special performance.
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