Sir Georg Solti was Principal Conductor and Artistic Director of the London Philharmonic Orchestra for four seasons (1979-1983). This Beethoven concert, given at the Proms, came at the start of the LPO’s 1982/83 season, which was the orchestra’s Golden Jubilee and Solti’s last in charge.
Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis is a colossal challenge to all the performers, not least the choir. Solti’s is an intense, big-boned reading which seems to me to be firmly operatic in conception - more than once while listening von Bülow’s celebrated waspish quip about the Verdi Requiem being the composer’s opera in vestments came to mind.
The operatic dimension is very much in evidence in the contributions of the four soloists. All of them have large voices – vital in a hall the size of the Royal Albert Hall – and all of them give strongly projected performances. I prefer the higher voices in the quartet. Hans Sotin sounds somewhat strained at times and there’s a touch of the lugubrious about some of his singing. At the start of the Agnus Dei I have the impression he doesn’t want to sing at Solti’s tempo. Overall, however, he’s solid and reliable. The timbre of Doris Soffel’s voice is not to my taste; the tone often appears to be hard. Like Sotin, however, she’s a reliable member of the team. On the other hand Helen Donath projects the tessitura of Beethoven’s writing fearlessly and Siegfried Jerusalem has just the heroic ring for this part – I think he enters marginally early at one point in the Benedictus but no harm comes of it. The quartet does well in the Benedictus – where guest leader Ronald Thomas plays the violin solo very well – and overall I don’t think anyone buying this recording will be seriously disappointed by the solo performances.
However, the real heroes and heroines of this performance are to be found in the chorus. The Edinburgh Festival Chorus, who had sung the work a few days earlier at the Edinburgh Festival, I understand, certainly makes an impressive sound. Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s I sang in several performances of this work and I still count rehearsing and performing it as one of the most taxing, though ultimately rewarding, projects in my choral experience to date. The demands made on the chorus are exceptionally severe: Beethoven seems to have had little regard for his singers’ welfare and the writing is often punishing – and for long stretches at a time. This chorus copes splendidly with the demands of the composer – and the conductor – and the singers seem tireless.
The choir is heroic in the closing ages of the Gloria. They offer jubilation in the Et resurrexit section of the Credo, which starts briskly and then seems to step up one more gear. Also in that movement both of the fugues at Et vitam venturi – the slow, quiet one and the lightning-quick one that follows – are very well managed. And though all the big, strenuous moments come off very well the quiet singing impresses too. I was especially struck by the veiled tone of the tenors at the start of Et incarnatus est in the Credo.
Solti, who gets the LPO to play very well indeed, is on fine form. Often he drives the music hard but not really much harder, I think, than Beethoven intended. The performance is full of his famed intensity but, then, this is a work that needs intensity if it is to succeed. He’s expansive in the Kyrie, bringing out the grandeur of the music, especially in Kyrie II. The start of the Gloria is simply incandescent and I think he responds very well to the differing and often dramatic moods of the Credo. The Agnus Dei is very intense indeed although I noticed in passing that the episode involving the recitative passages for three soloists in succession — from cue G in the vocal score — is not as fast as I would have expected, given that the marking is Allegro assai. I admire Solti’s reading, which seems well suited to a performance by very large forces in a very large auditorium.
The recording is the one made by the BBC for radio transmission. There’s some tape hiss, which is especially noticeable at the very start, but I found that my ears soon adjusted. The recording is sometimes strained almost to breaking point by the sheer volume of sound. For example, the sound is somewhat overloaded at the beginning of the Gloria and is rather saturated at the start of the Credo. However, for the most part the sound is perfectly acceptable and offers a good sound picture of the performance.
Reflecting on the performance when I’d heard it through I felt that it was, perhaps, just a little unrelenting. Partly this may be down to Beethoven but, though he gives a good account of the score, I think Solti might have looked for a few opportunities to relax a bit more. I believe Solti made a commercial recording of Missa Solemnis in Chicago but I’m not sure how readily available that recording currently is so his followers will certainly want this recording – and possibly I addition to the studio recording . My own preference for a live performance of this work which is not in period style would still be Bernstein’s 1979 Concertgebouw recording for DG but this Solti version is also worth hearing.