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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) Missa Solemnis in D major, Op. 123 (1818)
Lucy Crowe (soprano); Jennifer Johnston (mezzo); James Gilchrist (tenor); Matthew Rose (bass)
Monteverdi Choir; Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique/Sir John Eliot Gardiner
rec. live, 17 October 2012, Barbican Hall, London.
Latin text, English, French, German translations included SOLI DEO GLORIA SDG 718 [69:58]
Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s 1989 DG Archiv recording of Missa Solemnis has been one of the leading recommendations for this visionary masterpiece ever since it was issued. Here he revisits the work but whereas the previous recording was made under studio conditions this new one preserves a live performance; in fact it is the BBC Radio 3 broadcast of the concert. The performance was given during an international tour of the work which, to judge from a booklet note by bass Matthew Rose, involved fifteen performances. I don’t know at what point in the tour this performance took place but we hear what sounds to be a very well ‘run in’ reading in which everyone is very confident as to what is expected of them - and delivers. Gardiner’s earlier recording pre-dated the foundation of the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, I think, and for it he used the English Baroque Soloists. The size of the respective bands is almost identical but the Monteverdi Choir is slightly larger this time round: 13/12/9/11 compared with 12/8/8/8 in 1989.
Not long ago I reviewed a 2012 performance of the Mass conducted on DVD by Nikolaus Harnoncourt. That very fine reading suggested that Harnoncourt’s interpretation had mellowed over the years and become more expansive as compared with his 1992 audio recording. There’s slightly longer - three years more - between Gardiner’s two recordings but there’s no hint that his view of the work has mellowed: if anything, it’s become tauter and more urgent although the overall timing of this latest recording isn’t appreciably less than the previous effort, which plays for 71:39. But timings don’t tell the whole story and I find there’s even more thrust and white hot energy in this latest performance than Gardiner and his team achieved in 1989. Before I go any further I should make it clear that the earlier recording should be regarded still as a magnificent achievement, vividly played and sung and with a fine solo quartet on duty.
However, I think that the 2012 reading transcends even the 1989 recording. For a start the orchestral playing is excellent. That’s the case whether we’re talking about the hushed dark hues at the opening of the Agnus Dei or the blazing trumpets that herald the Gloria. The contribution of the Monteverdi Choir is simply magnificent. Whether the choir is singing at full tilt, as they are for much of the Gloria or Credo, or in a more reflective vein the sound is always focused and incisive. Once or twice the ladies harden their tone - quite deliberately, I’m sure - as, for instance, at the start of the Gloria or on the word ‘judicare’ in the Credo. I can imagine that some might find this ugly but I find it spine tingling. Frequently Gardiner’s tempi throw down a challenging gauntlet to his choir but whenever that happens they rise to the challenge. Thus, for example, the notoriously difficult quick fugue on ‘Et vitam venturi saeculi’ is taken at what I can only describe as a helluva lick. With less accomplished singers the music might sound gabbled but the Monteverdi’s make complete sense of Beethoven’s writing and the effect is exhilarating.
The members of the solo quartet are individually excellent and also make a fine team. Matthew Rose provides a firm foundation; he’s impressive at the start of the Agnus Dei. James Gilchrist and Jennifer Johnston offer some distinguished singing too - hear the former’s ringing declaration, ‘Et homo factus est’. As for Lucy Crowe, she can be intensely dramatic when required - in the latter stages of the Agnus Dei, for instance - but also ravishes the ear with her silvery tone at times - for example during ‘Et vitam venturi saeculi’ Gardner picked a very strong team of soloists in 1989; he chose no less wisely in 2012. In Missa Solemnis there is an important fifth soloist: the leader of the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, Peter Hanson, plays the lovely solo in the Benedictus gloriously, his violin singing sweetly throughout.
What of Gardiner’s conducting? Well, it’s thrilling and in saying that I’m not just thinking of passages such as the blazing end of the Gloria; he’s just as exciting in his approach when the music is subdued and reflective. In one respect his interpretation has changed since 1989. In the earlier recording the solo quartet sang all of the Sanctus. This time round the choir take over for the concluding bars of ‘Pleni sunt caeli’ and the last bars of ‘Hosanna’. I can’t recall hearing the music treated in this way before but I find it effective. The interpretation reaches its climax in the Agnus Dei. The first part of this movement is searingly dramatic, the soloists almost operatic in their delivery. The intensity is compelling - I can’t recall hearing the music performed in so electrifying a fashion before. Later in the movement, when we hear the martial episode and then the final earnest plea for peace, Gardiner’s presentation of the music serves as a formidable reminder that In the decades leading up to the composition of the Mass - in other words for much of Beethoven’s adult life to date - continental Europe had endured revolutions, political turmoil and much bloody warfare. Beethoven had certainly not been isolated from all this and in his Agnus Dei he surely reflected those sorely troubled times and his desperate hope that peace would prevail.
This, then, is a powerful and superbly executed account of Beethoven’s choral masterpiece. Each time I’ve listened to this new recording I’ve been stirred by it and I think it’s a tremendous achievement. Presentation values are up to SDG’s usual very high standards: the sound is good and the notes by Stephen Johnson are excellent. I would not say that this displaces the 1989 recording; rather, it complements it and gives us Sir John’s current and very stimulating view of this amazing work.