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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Missa solemnis in D major, Op. 123
Marlis Petersen (soprano); Elisabeth Kulman (alto); Werner Güra (tenor); Gerald Finley (bass)
Netherlands Radio Choir; Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
rec. live, 19-25 April 2012, Concertgebouw, Amsterdam
Video Director: Joost Honselaar
Latin, English, French, German, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Korean subtitles
Region Code: 0; Picture Format: NTSC 16:9. Sound format: PCM Stereo. DTS 5.0
C MAJOR 712608 [99:00]

By coincidence this recording of Beethoven’s great Mass was filmed at performances that took place less than three weeks after the same choir and orchestra had performed Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in the same venue. I reviewed that DVD only recently.
I bought Harnoncourt’s audio recording of Missa solemnis when it first appeared (Teldec 9031-74884-2), though I haven’t listened to it for quite a while. That, too, was a live recording, made at the opening concert of the 1992 Salzburg Festival. The orchestra was The Chamber Orchestra of Europe, the same band with which he’d already recorded his fascinating cycle of the Beethoven symphonies. It was not until I’d watched this DVD nearly to the end that I thought to check the respective timings. The 1992 performance took 80:58 whereas the actual performance time on this new release is 89:42. Even allowing that this includes two brief pauses of a minute or so each after the Gloria and the Credo that still confirms the impression I’d gained from watching this Amsterdam performance that there are several occasions when Harnoncourt in 2012 allows himself to be quite expansive.
The performance is given on modern instruments though the timpanist plays with hard sticks and uses two elderly-looking, hand-tuned drums. The performance is informed in other ways by Harnoncourt’s period practice background, notably that the strings’ use of vibrato is restrained - though not eschewed - and the violins are divided left and right, though, arguably, that should be done for every Beethoven performance. The string band is not full-strength but neither is it puny in size: I counted six desks each of first and second violins; I think there are five desks of violas and three of cellos and there are five double basses. The chorus, made up of professionals, I believe, comprises some seventy singers. The other noteworthy feature is that the solo quartet aren’t positioned by the conductor’s rostrum but sit between the orchestra and the front row of the choir, right in front of the conductor.
The Kyrie is taken quite spaciously; the music is stately and relaxed though the tempo and the urgency pick up, as stipulated in the score, for the Christe. One has heard more overtly dramatic readings of this movement but Harnoncourt shows wisdom here; by no means does he underplay the music but he knows that bigger statements - and bigger trials for his chorus - lie ahead. The Gloria erupts, full of energy, and one can only admire the incisiveness of both choir and orchestra. At ‘Et in terra pax’ I wondered if the music sounded a little too smooth and measured and ‘Gratias agimus’ was another passage where I thought Harnoncourt’s pacing was surprisingly steady. However, for the most part the conductor injects fire when necessary and the relaxation for Beethoven’s more reflective passages feels appropriate and considered. I admired the tenors’ ringing tone at ‘Quoniam tu solus’, the fugue at ‘In gloria Dei Patris’ is splendidly articulated by the singers. The end of the movement is exciting but firmly controlled. At the end of this movement Harnoncourt sits down for a short rest, as he also does after the Credo: one easily forgets that he was 82 at the time this recording was made.
In the opening pages of the Credo Harnoncourt is scrupulous in getting his chorus to observe the frequent sforzandi to a degree that most conductors don’t achieve - or attempt? Accurate it may be but I have to say that I found some of the dynamics hereabouts seemed a little bit fussy. At ‘Et incarnatus est’ the tenors achieve a hushed, veiled tone that is really thrilling. They and the soloists impart a real sense of wonder to this passage and the orchestral contribution is distinguished too, especially the principal flute who is on superb form throughout the performance. Further on, after a ringing declaration at ‘Et homo factus est’ by Güra, there’s a compelling suspense and mystery at ‘passus et sepultus est’. Harnoncourt and his excellent choir make a splendid job of the hugely demanding ‘Et vitam venturi saeculi’ section and the hushed, extended ‘Amen’ is beautifully achieved. Here is one of many times when I particularly admired the pure, silvery tone of soprano Marlis Petersen. In a very fine solo quartet she’s simply outstanding, singing with gorgeous tone yet possessing ample power when necessary.
The soloists sing the entire Sanctus movement and they make a very good job of it. The Benedictus is illuminated by a radiant violin solo from the concertmaster. Shamefully, he’s not credited but I’m pretty sure it’s Liviu Prunaru, one of the RCO’s co-concertmasters. The quartet sings most expressively in this movement. Gerald Finley, who provides a splendid foundation for the quartet throughout, is magnificent at the start of the Agnus Dei. His three colleagues, when they join him, are also very eloquent. The gravity gives way to a serenely flowing pace when the 6/8 section is reached but the storm clouds gather before too long. The martial music is suitably threatening with some impassioned interjections from the soloists. One interesting detail is that in this episode - and again right at the end of the piece - the timpanist plays with snare drum sticks, having muffled the drum with a cloth; the effect is very successful indeed. One is forcefully reminded in this part of the Mass that the composer had lived through a period of war and significant political turmoil in Europe in the years prior to the composition of the Mass. His plea for peace was founded on very direct experience. Eventually the threat of war recedes, at least so far as this score is concerned, and Harnoncourt brings the work home in tranquillity.
This is a fine performance of Missa solemnis. There are a few points where I don’t quite agree with Harnoncourt’s conception but overall I take a very great deal from his account of this compelling masterpiece and I think that he conveys at all times the spirit of the music, inspiring his performers to do likewise. The execution of the music is superb from all the performers. As I’ve come to expect from concert videos made in the Concertgebouw, the camera direction is excellent; the shots are relevant and unobtrusive and there’s absolutely no gimmickry. The sound quality is very good.
I think anyone acquiring this DVD will be very satisfied. Incidentally, these same forces brought the work to London a few days later and their performance, on 28 April, was reviewed by Geoff Diggines for Seen and Heard.
John Quinn

See also review by Leslie Wright of the Blu-ray release (October 2013 Recording of the Month)