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
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
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
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
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
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
but this one has now to be counted as one of the leading
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