Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Missa Solemnis (1819-1823) [73.04]
Regine Hangler (soprano)
Elisabeth Kulman (alto)
Christian Elsner (tenor)
Franz-Josef Selig (bass)
MDR Rundfunkchor Leipzig
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin/Marek Janowski
rec. live, Berlin Philharmonie, September 2016
Reviewed in stereo
PENTATONE PTC5186565 SACD [73.04]
Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis is for many a sort of Marmite work – one which is either actively disliked or, as the booklet notes for this release state, seen as “a unique gem. A work of dramatic external power and well-nigh incredible inner strength.” Marmite aside, I struggled a little in my youth with Leonard Bernstein’s Deutsche Grammophon recording with Edda Moser and Hanna Schwartz et al (review) but suspect I would have been too young to appreciate the work in general. Having been put off a little I haven’t listened to it much in the last few decades, but with fine recordings turning up such as this Pentatone release through it was about time I pulled my socks up and discovered the Missa Solemnis anew.
In fact, so impressed were my colleagues with the Daniel Reuss live recording on the Glossa label (review) that I downloaded it and have been enjoying it very much over recent weeks. A newcomer will be put at a disadvantage in this context, but in any case such luminous singing and refined and well-prepared orchestral performance will always be hard to beat. As it is, Marek Janowski and his forces come pretty close. The choir has a nicely blended tone and has all of the skilful dynamic phrasing and dramatic dynamism you could ask for. The soloists are also very fine. Soprano Regine Hangler is not as accurate as Carolyn Sampson with her notes in some places, leaning into them and intonating a little low here and there as well. These are perhaps the disadvantages of live recordings, though one never knows quite how many takes have been sneaked in to create the final result.
I don’t want to go nit-picking, and there are many beautiful moments in this performance. There is some excellent interaction between instruments and voices in the first half of the Gloria for instance, though things become a little heavier further along. I´ve become perhaps a little too used to the hard timpani sticks and more transparent textures from the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century, so this recording turns out to be one that harks back to older recording traditions, though without the up-front choral sound you get from Otto Klemperer (review). Timings are certainly by no means on the long side, and if you prefer that more massive sound then this may well be a recording you prefer over the lighter textures and nasal natural horns you hear from Daniel Reuss’s band.
While this Pentatone Missa Solemnis is very good, I don’t feel the revelatory experience I had from Daniel Reuss’s recording. Compare that atmospheric opening to the Sanctus, where Berlin basses and bassoons take a moment or two to find their intonation, in which the distinctive colour of each instrument blends well but lacks that distinctive sense of identity that makes that Utrecht recording so special, pointing out the stresses in Beethoven’s unfolding harmonies so subtly. Then there are the entries of the singers, all perfectly decent, but a bit swoopy between the notes and forming less of a unit, the build-up to the Pleni sunt coeli et terra gloria ultimately turning into more of a prelude that tails off somewhat, rather than something that generates electric anticipation.
This in the end sums up my experience with this recording of the Missa Solemnis: it’s very good, and the SACD sonics are stunning as ever from this source, but I can’t ignore that part of my mind that keeps reminding me it can also be had a degree or two better elsewhere.