Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37 [36:12]
Mass in C major, Op. 86 [40:52]
Emanuel Ax (piano), Joélle Harvey (soprano), Kelley O’Connor (mezzo), William Burden (tenor), Shenyang (bass-baritone) San Francisco Symphony Chorus, San Francisco Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas
rec. live, 26-28 September 2013 (concerto), 15-18 January 2014 (Mass), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco
Latin text and English translation included
SFS MEDIA SFS0064 [77:04]

This is a rather unusual coupling, at least in my experience. Since the pieces were recorded at different series of concerts one wonders if these were two Beethoven recordings that have been placed together for lack of an alternative coupling for either in the SFS Media vaults. I should issue one mild warning. There’s a gap of only a few seconds between the two works so, unless you programme your player, you need to be nifty with the remote control after the concerto has finished.

At the start of the concerto the San Francisco Symphony produces a cultivated big-band sound. When so many recordings these days are by period ensembles or chamber orchestras – I like both approaches – it’s refreshing to hear a top-flight traditional symphony orchestra in this music. Emanuel Ax is a distinguished soloist; his playing is fluent, stylish and dexterous and he exhibits no little flair. As the movement progresses there’s ample evidence of strength in the playing of both the soloist and the orchestra but there’s also ample finesse. As for the recording, the engineers have achieved a very good balance between piano and orchestra. As recorded, the sound of the solo instrument itself – a Steinway – is very pleasing; there’s a rich bass and I don’t find the treble over-bright, still less clangy.

The start of the Largo is voiced with great sensitivity by Ax, his weighting of the notes a delight to hear. This is an intimate account of the movement featuring highly refined accompaniment. Ax shades the music very expressively and the contributions of the SFS woodwind soloists give particular pleasure. This is a beguiling performance. The finale, taken attacca, features high spirits and good humour. This performance made me realise how far Beethoven has travelled from the minor key seriousness of the first movement, via the heart-easing slow movement, to the brio of the finale. There’s grace and playfulness in this performance while the coda is driven by joie de vivre. There’s a most enthusiastic response from the San Francisco audience; they clearly enjoyed and admired the performance and so did I.

Berlioz famously remarked of his Te Deum that with its composition his Requiem had a little brother. With Beethoven’s Masses the reverse process applied because the C major Mass, which is in so many ways the little brother of – and precursor to – the Missa Solemnis, was the first of the two settings to be written. Beethoven composed Op. 86 in 1807 to fulfil a commission from Haydn’s patron, Prince Nicholas Esterházy II. The Mass in C is very clearly in the lineage begun by Haydn with his sequence of six late Masses, composed for the Prince, yet Beethoven typically took what Haydn had achieved to another level.

For many years my favourite recording of this Mass has been the typically dynamic version made by Sir John Eliot Gardiner for DG Archiv in 1989 (435 391-2). I made a conscious decision not to compare that version with Tilson Thomas’s new recording because it would have been a case of apples and pears: Tilson Thomas uses a larger choir than Gardiner; his performance doesn’t use period instruments; and it was not recorded under studio conditions. However, I broke my resolution – albeit for the only time – in the Kyrie. The marking in my vocal score is Andante con moto assai vivace quasi Allegretto ma non troppo. With the greatest respect to Beethoven, there are so many different possibilities in that instruction that a conductor has to make a very fundamental decision about tempo. Most conductors in my experience adopt a fairly measured speed. But I think Tilson Thomas has fastened onto those elements in the marking that suggest a flowing speed is what’s required; that’s certainly what we get here and the movement is despatched in a few seconds under four minutes. I turned to Gardiner, whose performance plays for 5:35. To be honest I found his speed a fraction too measured. However, the Kyrie is a plea for mercy – ‘Lord have mercy’ – and I get that with Gardiner but certainly not with Tilson Thomas. To be frank, I think that with his speed there’s a danger, not entirely avoided, of appearing to trivialise the music.

Happily, things improve markedly thereafter. The start of the Gloria is sprightly, as it should be, and I liked the singing of the solo tenor in the ‘Gratias agimus’. The Andante mosso, beginning at ‘Qui tollis peccata mundi’ is nicely expressive. I was mildly surprised that when the music picks up speed again at ‘Quoniam tu solus’, MTT makes a further acceleration for the fugue that commences shortly afterwards, but it’s effective. In the Credo I thought the ‘Et incarnatus’ was a little too swift; after all, the marking is Adagio; however, as the section unfolded I became reconciled to the speed, no doubt because the performance itself is very good. The fugue near the end, at ‘Et vitam venturi saeculi’, is taken at a lick and the results are exhilarating.

I like the sense of mystery that’s achieved at the start of the Sanctus and the solo quartet do very well in the Benedictus. In the Agnus Dei Tilson Thomas brings out the drama in the writing and also ensures that the dynamic contrasts, so vital to almost any Beethoven performance, make their full effect. The Mass concludes with a mobile, fluent rendition of the ‘Dona nobis pacem’. Once again there’s applause but it’s more restrained than was the case after the concerto and that’s entirely appropriate.

In the Mass the San Francisco Symphony Chorus acquits itself very well while, as in the concerto, the orchestra plays splendidly. MTT has a good team of soloists. I’ve encountered two of them before. Kelley O’Connor sings the role of Mary Magdalene, a role created for her, in Gustavo Dudamel’s recording of The Gospel According to the Other Mary by John Adams (DG 479 2243). Here her rich mezzo is heard to good advantage. The Chinese bass, Shenyang won the 2007 Cardiff Singer of the World competition. Here he provides a good, solid foundation to the quartet though his singing sounds a bit impassive to me and once or twice – for example at ‘Et resurrexit’ in the Credo - his vowels are a bit odd. The other two singers were new to me. Soprano Joélle Harvey has a gleaming top to her voice and I enjoyed her contribution. Tenor William Burden also makes a good impression.

The SACD sound is clear and good. If this coupling appeals then you’ll find the disc contains a very good performance of the Mass and a distinguished account of the concerto.

John Quinn

Support us financially by purchasing this from