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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Missa solemnis in D major, Op. 123
Genia Kühmeier (soprano); Elisabeth Kulman (mezzo); Mark Padmore (tenor); Hanno Müller-Brachmann (bass-baritone)
Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Bernard Haitink
rec. live, 25-26 September 2014, Herkulessaal der Residenz, München
Latin texts, English, German translations included
BR KLASSIK 900130 [79:22]

“From the heart, may it go to the heart.”
(Beethoven’s inscription on the manuscript score of his Missa Solemnis)

Last year at the Semperoper as part of the Dresden Musikfest 2014 I attended a disappointing performance of Beethoven’s great Missa Solemnis. Ivor Bolton was conducting a quartet of soloists, Balthasar-Neumann-Chor and the Dresdner Festspielorchester playing on authentic instruments. It was altogether below-par and I reckon the oppressive hot weather of the day affected not just the tuning of the strings but also the energy levels of the performers.

In view of that uninspiring Dresden concert when this new BR Klassik release arrived I was delighted to have the opportunity to reacquaint myself with the score. Recorded live at the Herkulessaal, Munich by the world class Chor und Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks the distinguished conductor Bernard Haitink has selected an impressive quartet of soloists.

The motivation behind Beethoven’s writing of the Missa solemnis was the appointment in 1819 of Archbishop Rudolph as Cardinal-Archbishop of Olomouc. Beethoven’s former piano and composition pupil and most valued patron, Archbishop Rudolph was the youngest son of Emperor Leopold II. Beethoven invested considerable time as well as emotional and spiritual energy on his Missa solemnis and didn’t complete this immense sacred score until 1823 some three years after Rudolph’s enthronement; a ceremony that used works by Haydn and Hummel instead. The Missa solemnis had to wait until 1824 for its première which was given not in a church setting but at a concert hall in Saint Petersburg. Incidentally, in 1807 Beethoven had composed a mass – a commission from Prince Nicholas Esterházy for the name day of his wife.

All Haitink's soloists here sing with unerring commitment and incisiveness. This is not always the case in performances of this work the quartet. They also manage to keep their operatic sensibilities under wraps and concentrate on the reverential aspect of the text. The highly appealing Salzburg-born soprano Genia Kühmeier excels with her eagerly bright and fluid tone. Another Austrian, Elisabeth Kulman is in splendid voice too. A refined well focused lyric mezzo, Kulman’s slightly dark timbre projects strongly, with clear and precise enunciation. In highly engaging voice English tenor Mark Padmore seems to improve each time I hear him. Here he displays creamy tone and impeccable diction all coupled with an eminently respectful projection of the sacred text. Dignified German bass-baritone Hanno Müller-Brachmann impresses with his steady, flexible tone and dark-edged hue. He has certainly become a singer to be reckoned with. Highlights include the uninhibited weighty outburst of praise in the Gloria. This is freighted with awe. I especially enjoyed the singing of Quoniam tu solus sanctus which sounded as effectively dramatic as one could wish. The Adagio of the Agnus Dei, the conclusion to the score, has few parallels in sacred music and captures an atmosphere of spiritual serenity.

The orchestra are fully engaged with the sacred drama with no shortage of relish whilst maintaining a resolutely cohesive whole. The vitality and drive generated by Haitink are major attributes of this memorable performance. Concertmaster Anton Barachovsky adopts a pleasing, rather understated approach to his violin solos in the Benedictus — an appropriately ethereal background to the solo voices. Consistently inspiring all evening the choir is excellent and clearly well prepared.

Recorded live in the inexorably reliable acoustic of the Herkulessaal, Munich the sound team can take a bow for the satisfying, clear and reasonably well balanced sonics. The booklet that accompanies the release includes full Latin texts with German and English translations.

Previously I have not felt entirely comfortable in nominating a stand-out first choice for the Missa solemnis but this release from Haitink and his Bavarian forces is as praiseworthy as any recording I have encountered.

Michael Cookson


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