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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Missa Solemnis [75.03]
Carolyn Sampson (soprano)
Mariann Beate Kielland (alto)
Thomas Walker (tenor)
David Wilson-Johnson (bass)
Capella Amsterdam
Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century/Daniel Reuss
rec. live, Utrecht (Tivoli/Vredenburg), The Netherlands, October 2016
GLOSSA GCD921124 [75.03]

“How do you translate into reality a work which doesn’t take reality into account?” was Otto Klemperer’s comment on the Missa Solemnis. Indeed, it seems difficult ever to conceive of a performance which matches in every respect the complexity and extra-musical aspiration of the work. It cannot be fitted neatly into the same categories as the great masses of Mozart or the two brothers Haydn (Michael’s masses are superb, and deserve more frequent performance), not least because Beethoven’s faith was not easily classifiable in conventional terms, though doubtless intensely felt. At times, the music feels almost a clamant assault on heaven’s gates, yet, elsewhere, as in the glorious solo violin representation of Incarnation in the connected Sanctus and Benedictus (the Benedictus was often sung after the Consecration rather than as part of the Sanctus, where, strictly liturgically, it more properly belongs).

The Missa Solemnis, if performed as merely a concert piece, without attention to the dimension of faith, seems always to miss the point that really matters. Great recordings and performance capture, in different ways, both music and faith elements. Holding the two in tandem is not easy. Guilini, a man of deep faith, in his EMI performance, brings out the devotional aspect of the work, but at the expense of its urgency and heartfelt human needfulness. It seems to smooth away rough edges in its tendency to the serene and meditative. For me, the benchmark recording remains the gaunt, urgent straightforwardness of Klemperer’s 1965 performance, despite some drawbacks, such as a weak tenor performance by Waldemar Kmentt.

But the Klemperer performance is a legacy of the days of big choir performances, not more recent scholarship and period performance practice. Any attempt to produce a period performance is faced with the problem that we hear through un-period ears. We do not hear musically as a contemporary of Beethoven hears: we cannot unlearn a musical sensibility which has heard Bruckner, Mahler or Shostakovich. That is not at all to denigrate period performance, though it is sometimes essential to remind ourselves of what, in 1730 or 1830, would have sounded especially tragic or shocking. One of the important features of the period music movement has been the way in which, in the finest hands, performances have moved beyond the novelty to true musical and spiritual engagement with the composer.

That is especially true here. For the choral elements, there is appropriate weight and attack in a 42-voice choir and 48-instrument orchestra. There were moments when I might have preferred a little more attack in some of the phrasing, but the deep musicality of the performance is never for a second in doubt. As a performance, it is a match for, but not a copy of, John Eliot Gardiner. Tempos are slower, generally, but that is no necessary problem, provided, as here, there is no loss of integrity or impetus. Given how Beethoven’s word setting, as of ‘miserere’, often emphasises individual syllables, the slightly broader timing permits them to tell as they should.

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of this recording is the extraordinary insight of the Agnus Dei. I have heard it treated almost as an afterthought to the storming Gloria and Credo, yet it is one of Beethoven’s most profound and ambiguously troubled utterances. There is no hint here of afterthought in the rapt sounds from the soloists in the opening of this plea for both mercy and peace. This is music-making of deep understanding and intensity. It stayed in my mind long after my first hearing. There is piety and comfort, but the undertones in those hints of war are brought out as we might hear in our dreams. The choir manages – apparently effortlessly, but one suspects with enormous and difficult preparation – to bring out both the pleading and the sense of awe and expectation.

Soloists are excellent, and the recording is a triumph for all concerned, even if, as with the Klemperer, we are constantly aware that any performance is always a striving and never the last word.

Michael Wilkinson

Previous review: Simon Thompson


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