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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Missa Solemnis, Op. 123
Laura Aikin (soprano), Bernarda Fink (alto), Johannes Chum (tenor), Ruben Drole (bass)
Arnold Schoenberg Chor
Concentus Musicus Wien/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
rec. 3-5 July 2015, Stephaniesaal, Graz, Austria
SONY CLASSICAL 88985 313592 [81:32]

This disc arrived rich with portent and, arguably, a sense of its own importance. Nikolaus Harnoncourt, that pioneer of period performance, and certainly one of the most important conductors of the last sixty years, stood down from the concert platform in 2015 and died the following year, on March 5, 2016. This performance was captured during the 2015 Styriarte Festival, and Harnoncourt made it clear that he wanted this to be his last released recording. So, as I said, the disc comes with something of a sense of its own importance. Doesn’t Harnoncourt strike a rather Beethovenian pose on the CD booklet cover as he shuffles, alone, through an Austrian meadow?

The Missa Solemnis was a key work for Harnoncourt, and his performances of it in Graz and at the 2015 Salzburg Festival were his last concerts. Its intentionality alone means that there’s a very real sense in which Harnoncourt meant this recording as some sort of last testament, and there are certainly some very important differences between this and his previous recording of the work with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe in 1993.

The most obvious thing to say about how his interpretation has developed is that his 2015 Missa Solemnis feels slower than the 1993 one (even though it isn’t necessarily so in reality) but also more considered, and perhaps a little more wilful.  The opening of the Gloria, for example, is considered and careful rather than exuberant, slower than that of 1993, and a long way from the euphoria that you’ll hear in the interpretations of, say, Levine or, on period instruments, Gardiner or Herrweghe. It feels more forensic, however, as though Harnoncourt is going back over well-trodden ground - revisiting the scene of a crime, almost - determined to expose more than was revealed the first time.

You hear the voice of Beethoven’s great predecessors (and Harnoncourt’s other great musical loves) coming through more clearly.  Bach’s presence is palpable in the great fugue of ‘In gloria Dei patris’, and there is something almost Schützian in the slow, measured way in which Harnoncourt traces out the counterpoint, as is the sense of monumentality when the great chunks of the Credo’s opening are laid down like slabs. ‘Et vitam venturi’, on the other hand, seems to recall the Beethoven of the Ninth Symphony, casting a sideways glance at the double fugue that occurs after the ‘Turkish’ section of the finale, albeit much more measured and deliberate here.

There is palpable ardour to the Amen that concludes the Gloria, and you can hear that in ‘Et incarnatus est’, too, as though everyone is awestruck by the mystery about which they are singing.  In fact, it’s in moments like that when the performance is at its strongest, and that helps to ensure that the Sanctus is the heart of the performance; searching, inward and intensely thoughtful.  It’s also here that the soloists are at their most beautiful, and I preferred it to the Benedictus, mainly because I couldn't quite tune in to the slightly wiry violin solo.

The beginning of the Agnus Dei is slow, deliberative and very thoughtful, almost anguished at times, as though Harnoncourt is trying to burrow deep into the work’s searching heart.  ‘Dona nobis pacem’ begins in a fairly upbeat style, but moves into the martial section with a genuine air of threat.  This is where the soloists are at their finest, due to the element of danger that creeps into the voices, and it is also here that the benefits of the Concentus Musicus Wien’s intentionally raw period style really comes into its own, with not only the great climax of trumpets and drums sounding red and exciting, but also the string runs that lead into it.

Of course, we can never know how far our ears are influenced by the conductor’s statement that this would be his last recording, but he is largely successful in his work of revisiting – a lot here feels new, whether it’s a final summation or not – and it does feel a bit like a last testament.  That doesn’t mean you’re necessarily going to like it, though, because he often sacrifices conventional ideas of beauty in the pursuit of his ideal.

A large reason for the newness is that this recording inhabits a very different sound world to that of the COE.  For a start, the orchestral sound is more wiry and, I suspect, intentionally lacking in beauty, where the COE had been essentially a pared down performance by a symphony orchestra.  This one feels as though it has been rethought from the ground up, rebuilt, almost.  The horns that lead into the ‘Christe eleison’ section, for example, sound so stripped back as to be almost a solo.

The chorus, too, sound thinner and more open-vowelled.  In the opening Kyrie, for example, they sound very much like a chamber choir, with character but not much heft, and Harnoncourt seems to have crafted his own very specific sound with them, rather unlike any other choir I’ve heard in this work; on the whole quite thin and almost a little hollow, albeit bringing some gains in transparency.

The soloists are cut from the same cloth, emerging from the choral texture as though reluctantly, when you hear them first, with Johannes Chum’s tenor even sounding a little fluty in places, and even Laura Aikin’s soprano fails somewhat to stand out.  That’s all of a piece with Harnoncourt’s interpretation, of course, but I didn’t always buy it.  The Gratias, for example, sounds rather too spare and ungiving, though they all rise to a very strong showing in the final Agnus Dei.

As an interpretation to return to, though, I’m not sure I like it. I mentioned earlier that there was wilfulness in the performance and, while some will credit that as Harnoncourt’s musical brain refusing to settle for orthodoxy right to the last, it smelt a bit off to me. While I love Harnoncourt’s previous Beethoven set, I’ve never really had much truck with him elsewhere, finding his Mozart, Schubert and Brahms rather odd and, at times, self-consciously clever, and I couldn’t shake off that feeling here. It’s as though he intentionally avoids the great beauty of the mass, depriving the listener of some of the most ravishing spiritual climaxes in music in order to make his point. No doubt that’s so that he can lay bare his exploration of the work’s musical core but, frankly, I’d rather hear a conductor who is less keen to cut the work open and keener to unleash its beauties.

That’s why I can’t really recommend this disc over his 1993 version. If you’re an Harnoncourt fan or if you want a fairly fresh way of hearing the mass then you’ll already have made up your mind, but it’s his 1993 recording I’ll go back to first if I want to hear his Beethoven, more balanced and more satisfying to my ears.

Neither recording will put aside the work’s two greatest performances on disc, though: Gardiner’s first Missa Solemnis on DG (I haven’t heard his more recent one on SDG) remains as refreshingly clean as the day it was issued, and for a magisterial (if utterly inauthentic) live account on modern instruments, James Levine’s tribute to Karajan at the 1991 Salzburg Festival is irreplaceable for its atmosphere. Thielemann’s Dresden film remains the best one if you want pictures too.

Simon Thompson



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