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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Missa Solemnis in D, Op 123
Ann-Helen Moen (soprano); Roxana Constantinescu (mezzo-soprano); James Gilchrist (tenor); Benjamin Bevan (baritone); Ryo Terakado (violin)
Bach Collegium Japan/Masaaki Suzuki
rec. 2017, Kawaguchi Lilia Music Hall, Kawaguchi, Japan. DSD
Latin text & English translation included
BIS BIS-2321 SACD [74:07]

Performing the Missa Solemnis is not a something to be undertaken lightly, as I discovered when I sang in two or three performances some years ago. The demands on the chorus are unrelenting – cruelly so in the case of the sopranos – and arguably it’s even more tiring to rehearse than to perform. At least in performance the chorus gets some respite during passages where the soloists sing by themselves and vice versa. It’s quite another matter to rehearse the work for a couple of hours. At least, though, if you sing the work as part of a large amateur chorus there is a degree of safety in numbers. For a small chamber choir, even one comprised of professionals, there’s no hiding place. Here, the valiant singers of Bach Collegium Japan number just 31 (8/8/8/7), which is a far cry from the forces of, say, the New Philharmonia Chorus on the mighty Klemperer recording (review). Suzuki’s choir is closer in size to – though slightly smaller than – the Monteverdi Choir on either of Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s recordings (review).

Missa Solemnis is demanding not only of the performers but also of the listener. Great concentration and, yes, also a degree of stamina are required, while writing about the work or a performance of it is not an exercise for the fainthearted. I found a good deal to admire in Suzuki’s reading of the Mozart Requiem not long ago (review) so I was very keen to experience his ascent of Beethoven’s choral Everest.

This is a highly impressive performance. Suzuki’s choir may not be the largest one has encountered on disc in this work but they are well balanced against the orchestra and they sing extremely well. There’s plenty of heft when called for – the tenors’ cry of ‘Quoniam tu solus sanctus’ in the Gloria is like a trumpet fanfare – and I didn’t feel any lack of weight in such passages as the tumultuous conclusion of the Gloria. The use of a fairly small group of expert singers really pays dividends in episodes such as the two fugues - one slow, the second like a whirlwind - at ‘Et vitam venturi saeculi’. Hereabouts there’s exemplary clarity, with all the parts registering as they should. Indeed, clarity of choral textures is a hallmark of the entire performance.

The soloists make a strong team, not least because they genuinely sing as a team – the Sanctus is a conspicuous success. Ann-Helen Moen’s silvery soprano floats over the top of the quartet most appealingly, yet there’s also a touch of steel in her voice when required. The fact that Suzuki has engaged a baritone rather than a bass may suggest that he’s not seeking a deep, sonorous foundation to the quartet. However, Benjamin Bevan provides an unfailingly secure vocal anchor. He blends well with his colleagues and he has the necessary presence, not least at the start of the Agnus Dei. Roxana Constantinescu – a singer who was new to me - and James Gilchrist, with whose voice I’m very familiar, both make excellent contributions, though I find Gilchrist even more involving in the Gardiner live recording.

Which comment leads me on nicely to comparing Suzuki with Gardiner’s SDG recording. That was made at a single live performance in London’s Barbican and in a way the two recordings aren’t strictly comparable – the performnces are played at slightly different pitches, by the way. Suzuki’s is, so far as I’m aware, the product of studio sessions whereas the Gardiner performance was given during the course of an extensive tour of the work by the same forces. There’s a definite charge of electricity to the Gardner reading which isn’t quite matched by Suzuki. In the Japanese performance, for example, I find rather more gravitas in the Kyrie whereas Gardiner, at a slightly faster speed, injects a touch more drama.

The opening of the Gloria positively blazes in Gardiner’s performance, the trumpets prominent and the choir singing, as they do on several occasions during the performance as a whole, with a noticeable – and clearly intentional – edge to their tone. Suzuki is excellent in this passage but he’s not as incendiary. Shortly after, at ‘Gratias agimus’, Beethoven eases back into a more lyrical vein. Suzuki manages this transition exceptionally well and that’s not just a question of pacing; the mellow sound of his orchestra, the woodwinds in particular, are an important factor. Incidentally, this is one passage where I think Gilchrist is even better on the Gardiner recording. At ‘Quoniam tu solus sanctus’ all sections of Suzuki’s choir project the music very strongly. The Monteverdi Choir, however, is simply electrifying at this point. The fugue which follows sets off magnificently in both performances but, for me, Gardiner has the edge; indeed, his way with the closing pages of this movement will have you on the edge of your seat. Near the end, amid the repeated cries of ‘Amen’ comes a moment when the choir and orchestra stop abruptly and the soloists are left singing the word ‘Amen’ by themselves. It sounds simple enough but it’s a touch of dramatic genius on Beethoven’s part. It’s a heart-stopping moment in the Gardiner version. Suzuki ends the Gloria thrillingly but I don’t think he provides quite the adrenaline rush of Gardiner. Mind you, we are talking matters of a degree or so; no one is going to feel short changed by Suzuki.

In the Credo, Suzuki achieves a fine sense of inwardness at ‘Et incarnatus est’, as does Gardiner. The proclamation ‘Et homo factus est’ is a key moment in Missa Solemnis. Gilchrist rises to the occasion for both conductors, though for me he’s even more involving in the Gardiner performance. In the subsequent ‘Crucifixus’ passage listen to the stabbing orchestral interjections on the Gardiner disc; this is searingly dramatic. In both performances the Resurrection is splendidly announced but when we get to ‘Et ascendit’ it’s fasten your seat belts time if you’re listening to Gardiner. My goodness, he throws down the gauntlet to his players and singers at this point but even at this speed their articulation is amazing.

I’m very pleased to see that the leader of Suzuki’s orchestra, Ryo Terakado is given equal billing with the vocal soloists. His sweet, lyrical playing enhances the Benedictus. At the start of the Agnus Dei, Benjamin Bevan sings very well indeed for Suzuki but Mathew Brook, a genuine bass, has the vocal resources to be even more dramatic and darkly imposing. In a way I think the difference between those two singers at that point rather encapsulates the different approaches of our two conductors: Gardiner almost operatic in his conception, Suzuki just a bit softer-edged. The subsequent duet for the alto and tenor is very well done by Roxana Constantinescu and Gilchrist but in the Gardiner performance Gilchrist and his partner, Jennifer Johnston, seem even more fervent,

Gardiner’s electrifying account of Missa Solemnis is an intensely dramatic experience which will probably leave you drained. His reading is full of revolutionary zeal, a characteristic that often informs his recordings of the Beethoven symphonies. It seems to me that Suzuki doesn’t seek to offer quite such an intense vision. Perhaps he aims to emphasise the humanity in the music rather more than the quasi-operatic drama. He most certainly doesn’t downplay the fervour and drama in Beethoven’s visionary, uncompromising score but his conducting operates at a slightly lower temperature. Some may well find Gardiner’s way with the music just a bit too intense in which case Suzuki may be a preferable option. I think it would be impertinent to suggest – or even imply – that one version is in some way better than the other. I responded very positively to Gardiner’s recording when I first heard it and revisiting it now for these comparisons I’ve found my appetite undiminished. However, I’ve come to admire the Suzuki version very much as I’ve come to know it and I can well imagine that on some days, depending on my mood, I’ll prefer to be stirred by it rather than shaken and stirred by Gardiner. Both are terrific versions of this challenging masterpiece.

BIS’s presentation of this recording is first rate. The booklet contains an authoritative essay by the eminent Beethoven scholar, Dr Ernst Hettrich. They’ve also paid Suzuki the compliment of splendid sound. The recording, to which I listened using the stereo SACD option, is first class; there’s clarity, excellent definition and an expert balance. That’s as it should be, for such a considerable performance of Beethoven’s mighty Mass deserves nothing less.

John Quinn


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