Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Missa Solemnis in D Op.123 (1824)
Eileen Farrell (soprano), Carol Smith (alto), Richard Lewis (tenor), Kim Borg (bass).
Westminster Choir
New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Leonard Bernstein
rec. New York, 1962
ALTO ALC 1240 [76:32]
Leonard Bernstein recorded the Missa Solemnis twice in 1962: this recording in New York and later, in 1979, with the Concertgebouw for Deutsche Grammophon. The latter was positively reviewed here by Colin Clarke.
This American recording was one of the first stereo versions. Despite the claims of the Concertgebouw reading the earlier performance has admirers due to the energy and commitment of Bernstein and the fine soloists. With the orchestra trying its best in this challenging work — and despite certain shortcomings — there is a lot going for this earlier recording. My caveat is a serious one however in that this is not the Sony reissue but a transfer - presumably from LP. This has had two effects on this occasion: the recording sounds all of its fifty plus years and also there seems to be occasional distortion. We are used now to a high standard of sound from this era and for a large-scale choral work this is surely essential.
The Missa Solemnis is not a work I play often but when reviewing this disc I realized that there were over half a dozen in my collection which I’d place above this reissue: the historic Toscanini (live and studio), Gardiner, Zinman, Böhm, Karajan (twice), Solti, Klemperer and the later Bernstein. Comparing this latter recording with the Alto I found the sound and performance — but above all the sound — much to be preferred. Bernstein’s recordings for the “yellow label” were generally live and then “patched” but right from the Kyrie there is a consistent sense of occasion. In the Gloria the earlier recording sounds a little muddy whereas the 1979 recording is wonderfully powerful and clear. In the Sanctus the effect is memorable and in the Benedictus there is the wonderful violin playing of Herman Krebbers. In 1962 the fiddler was John Corigliano and sadly the sound does not do him justice. Sadly, the ethereal quality of the violin and choir is quite lost. The soloists too sound more comfortable in the later disc although I wouldn’t want to criticise those illustrious names from 1962.
As you will appreciate I find it difficult to endorse this reissue even at budget price. The later recording is superior if you want Bernstein. There is also a goodly number of alternatives, going back to Toscanini whose 1939 recording I found easier on the ear.
A disappointing transfer of the earlier Bernstein recording; the later recording is much to be preferred.
David R Dunsmore
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