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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]

Not long ago I had a conversation with someone who had had a very long career as an orchestral musician. Over the years she had played under many conductors but she said that the one conductor for whom she would have loved to play was Bernard Haitink. He is, she said, one of those conductors out of whom the music just seems to flow. At the time of that conversation I’d been listening already to this recording of Missa solemnis and that comment seemed to me to be so apposite. Hearing the recording again subsequently has simply reinforced that feeling.

To the best of my knowledge Haitink has not previously recorded the Missa solemnis. That was true also of Haydn’s Die Schopfüng, his splendid recording of which, also live, I welcomed only recently. I don’t know if the long delay in adding these works to his discography resulted from a deliberate decision by Bernard Haitink or happened just because no one asked him to record them. We are greatly indebted to Bavarian Radio and to BR Klassik that his interpretations of both scores have now been committed to disc and, in both cases, in first rate performances.

Recently, I greatly admired the contribution made by the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks to a 2007 performance of Ein Deutsches Requiem. Seven years later the choir is equally impressive in Beethoven’s hugely demanding music. Haitink also benefits from the presence of a splendid quartet of soloists while the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks proves yet again that it is currently one of the finest of all European ensembles.

I think that if I had to use one word to describe Haitink’s performance of this Everest of the choral repertoire it would be “wise”. At the time of this performance he was 85 and while there’s absolutely no sign of age diminishing his energy what is abundantly evident is that we are hearing a performance into which the accumulated wisdom and experience of six decades of conducting has been invested. I found this a profoundly satisfying reading in which everything seemed just right.

There’s majesty and depth of feeling in the Kyrie; right from the start one is impressed by the warmth and depth of the orchestral sound and by the excellence of the choir. The ‘Christe’, taken at an ideally flowing tempo, offers early evidence that the solo quartet is extremely well matched.

The exaltation at the start of the Gloria is expertly conveyed here with Haitink releasing all the energy in the music.. The ‘Gratias’ relaxes into lyrical warmth. Mark Padmore impresses here. His voice might be though a little on the light side for this work but it’s not; his sappy tone is ideal, as is the touch of steel in his voice. In the ‘Qui tollis’ all four soloists sing with fine feeling and I liked the gleaming tone of soprano Genia Kühmeier, who I don’t recall hearing before. The tenors proclaim ‘Quoniam tu Solus Sanctus’ with ringing conviction and thereafter the whole choir is thrillingly incisive in the pages that follow. Beethoven’s fugal writing is steadily – in other words, sensibly – paced though in the closing pages Haitink and his forces are more than capable of delivering an adrenalin rush.

At the heart of the Credo is the extended reflective section that begins with ‘Et incarnatus est’ which the Bavarian tenors sing with admirably veiled tone. The soloists distinguish themselves throughout this section, not least Padmore’s ardent announcement: ‘Et homo factus est’. ‘Et resurrexit’ is thrilling - the charge led by those tenors again! – and thereafter the choir is tireless in the face of Beethoven’s extraordinary demands, especially during the ‘et vitam venturi saeculi’ episode. The writing for the sopranos is unreasonably demanding at times but the Bavarian sopranos are undaunted. The soloists really catch the attention in the extended ‘Amen’, Genia Kühmeier’s voice in alt decorating the quartet writing to marvellous effect.

The quartet is very fine in the Sanctus after which Haitink and the orchestra invest the Praeludium with nobility. The music eases into the Benedictus (track 4, 5:22) in which the concert master, Anton Barachovsky offers as poised and sweetly sung an account of the violin solo as you could wish to hear.

The Agnus Dei is, in many ways, the most remarkable movement. Haitink ensures that there’s the appropriate degree of gravitas in the opening pages, the orchestral sound rich and dark. Hanno Müller-Brachmann’s singing is firm and expressive and his colleagues, taking their cue, match his musicality and intensity. Thereafter the performance is dramatic and intense until we reach Beethoven’s inspired double switch both to the major key and to compound time for ‘Dona nobis pacem’. At first the tone of the music is positive but Beethoven soon reminds us that the Mass was written at a time of much stress and conflict in continental Europe: the trumpets and drums of war are on the horizon and when they are heard (track 5, 8:41) the music becomes dramatic and full of foreboding. Haitink and his forces communicate all this splendidly, voicing an impassioned plea for peace which, at the end, is met with major-key optimism.

This is an inspired and inspiring performance. We may have had to wait a long time for a Haitink recording of this great work but, my goodness, the wait has been worthwhile. His interpretation is distinguished from first note to last and, in summary, I come back to the word “wise”.

The BR Klassik recording is excellent, as befits such a fine performance. Though it comes from live performances there is no audience noise and no applause intrudes at the end. There are several fine recordings of Missa solemnis but this one has now to be counted as one of the leading recommendations.

John Quinn

Previous review: Michael Cookson


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