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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Missa solemnis in D, Op. 123 (1824) [78:58]
Pamela Coburn (soprano); Florence Quivar (alto); Aldo Baldin (tenor); Andreas Schmidt (bass)
Bach-Collegium Stuttgart and Gächinger-Kantorei Stuttgart/Helmuth Rilling
rec. 1997
HÄNSSLER CLASSIC CD98.053 [78:58]

Numerous passages in this performance, particularly early on, reflect the best aspects of Helmuth Rilling's work. The conductor's straightforward, no-nonsense tempi frequently veer to the faster side of convention: the headlong opening of the Gloria and the "rocket" fugato in the Sanctus leap from the speakers as joyous hymns of praise. Yet, in supplying forward drive and rhythmic spring, Rilling doesn't sacrifice a sense of weight and importance. Tempo transitions between sections — including the tricky turn into triple meter at the end of the Gloria — are expertly gauged and executed with assurance. The chorus is very well-trained, though insistently detached articulations make the In gloria Dei Patris sound heavy.

As the performance progresses, however, a general lack of variety betrays Rilling's Kapellmeisterisch side. The introduction to the Kyrie, for example, unfolds easily, but the textures could be better layered. The wind interplay at the start of the Qui tollis, while full-throated, wants a more spacious, transparent sound. The chorus, similarly, is vivid at the start of the Gloria and in the fugues, but maintain a uniform intensity level: there's room for more ebb and flow than this.

Neither does Rilling's interpretation maintain the consistently high level established at the start. The Credo begins incisively, relaxing into a thoughtful Qui propter nos homines; but its broad central section sounds unsure of its footing, its sense of direction unclear. Since the passage in question treats the central tenet of the Christian faith, it disappoints on religious as well as musical grounds. The winding down of the Agnus Dei sounds uncommitted, bringing not only the movement but the entire enterprise to a soggy finish.

The soloists, though estimable, are variable. Pamela Coburn's soprano is arguably a size too small for the music — she can't dominate as expected, for example, in the Benedictus — but her floaty head tones open up pleasingly on top. Tenor Aldo Baldin manages a reasonably graceful Gratias agimus tibi, but manoeuvres uncomfortably around the break in Et homo factus est. Andreas Schmidt, though a baritone, is nonetheless a bit coarse in some of the bass music. Florence Quivar intones the alto solo lines firmly and with feeling, but sounds reticent, or disadvantaged, in the quartet passages: even her little duet with Schmidt in the Agnus Dei sounds backwardly balanced. As a group, the singers project the syncopations clearly in the Amen of the Gloria, but later quartet passages sound less orderly.

The orchestra plays well, though the bassoon and low strings sound a bit sclerotic at the start of the Sanctus. The recording is mostly good; brassy outbursts, while not unpleasant, tend to render the textures opaque.

I like this sort of Missa solemnis, solid rather than flashy, but, in the analogue era, Jochum (Philips) and Böhm (DG) realized such an approach more consistently. Bernstein's Amsterdam version (DG) offers a more dramatic, personalized reading, but its elaborate mixdown — obvious even in analogue formats — may not wear well on CD.
 
Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.