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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Missa solemnis in D major, Op 123 (1819-22)
Gundula Janowitz (soprano); Christa Ludwig (contralto); Fritz Wunderlich (tenor); Walter Berry (bass); Michel Schwalbé (violin)
Wiener Singverein
Berliner Philharmoniker/Herbert von Karajan
rec. 1966, Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin
Latin text, English & German translations included

Back in 2014 I reviewed DG’s reissue of Herbert von Karajan’s Beethoven symphony cycle, compiled between 1961 and 1962: that set offered the symphonies on CDs and on a Blu-ray Audio disc. Now, to coincide with Beethoven 250, DG has given similar treatment to Karajan’s 1966 recording of the Missa solemnis, which was set down in the same venue as the symphonies, the Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin. The recordings have been remastered at 24-bit/192 kHz.

The booklet includes a fascinating set of comments by Gundula Janowitz which she made in a telephone interview in August 2019. She relates that the entire Wiener Singverein, an amateur chorus, was flown to Berlin for recording sessions in February 1966 which lasted some 10 or 12 days; can you imagine that happening today? Mind you, DG got good value from the choir. What I hadn’t appreciated until reading Miss Janowitz’s comment, was that Karajan’s famous recording of Haydn’s Die Schöpfung was set down at the same time; indeed, she says that sometimes parts of the Mass were recorded in the morning with the afternoon devoted to Haydn’s vernal masterpiece. In passing, I wonder whether DG might consider remastering Karajan’s account of Die Schöpfung for CD and BD-A.

What a dream team of soloists was assembled for this Beethoven recording. Janowitz, just 28 at the time of this recording, became a favourite soprano of Karajan and hearing her pure, silvery sound we can understand why. Christa Ludwig and Walter Berry both turn in distinguished performances. And then there’s Wunderlich. What a wonderful tenor he was. These may have been his last studio sessions before his tragically untimely death in September 1966 – he didn’t complete recording all his contributions to Die Schöpfung at these February sessions and it was necessary to bring in Werner Krenn to record some of the recitatives. Here, we are reminded forcefully of the grievous loss occasioned by Wunderlich’s death at the age of just 35.

Karajan starts the Kyrie slowly and majestically. Almost immediately we hear luminous woodwind playing; clearly, the orchestral contribution is going to be at an exalted level, and so it proves to be as the work unfolds. Two features of the recording are particularly pleasing: the choir is well balanced so that they’re not obscured by the orchestra; and the engineering conveys the natural space round the sound of the solo voices, especially the soprano and tenor. The excellence of the solo quartet is very evident in the ‘Christe’ section.

There’s an electric, jubilant start to the Gloria but at ‘Et in terra pax’ Karajan insists upon – and gets – really hushed singing and playing. The ‘Qui tollis’ episode is really well done, especially by the soloists. Karajan’s treatment of ‘Quoniam tu solus’ is grand and spacious. I’ve heard other conductors take this passage more quickly and with exciting results but Karajan’s way brings its own rewards. The ‘In gloria Dei Patris’ fugue is delivered with significant energy and good articulation; then the closing pages are truly exultant.

At the start of the Credo the tempo marking is Allegro ma non troppo and Karajan has taken note of the ‘ma non troppo’ qualification. My initial feeling was that perhaps a touch more ‘allegro’ would be welcome but, as we shall see, the wisdom of Karajan’s approach is revealed later on. The choir is tireless in the face of Beethoven’s great demands – at times the soprano line seems to be perpetually above the stave! There’s a wonderful moment in the score at ‘Et incarnatus est’ where the tenors lead everything off. I can’t readily recall hearing this little passage sung and played in such a veiled manner; a real sense of awe results. The solo quartet take their cue from this and the pages that follow are wonderfully hushed. The marked dynamic in my vocal score is piano and arguably the performers don’t even get that loud but, frankly, who cares when the results are so inspiring? At ‘Crucifixus’ Karajan ensures that the orchestral sforzandi cut through like knives, maximising the drama. ‘Et resurrexit’ is like an electric charge and shortly thereafter Beethoven revisits the music heard at the start of the movement. Now we see the wisdom of Karajan’s initial approach because his tempo primo allows the choir to articulate a quite wordy text, mostly in quavers, with clarity. The conductor is equally sensible in his tempo selection for the first of the two fugues at ‘Et vitam venturi saeculi’. He keeps the music at a steady pace and at a hushed dynamic, imparting a great sense of mystery; the crescendo, when it comes, is all the more effective for the preceding restraint. The second ‘Et vitam venturi saeculi’ fugue is appreciably quicker and contains probably the most demanding music for the choir in the entire work. Karajan generates excitement without rushing the music off its feet and the results are terrific, building to a majestic climax of affirmation. The extended ‘Amen’ at the end positively glows. The solo quartet sings superbly here, with Gundula Janowitz’s voice absolutely ravishing the ear.

The quartet is to the fore in the Sanctus and one has the sense that they are genuinely singing as a team. The choral sections of this movement are equally successful. The Praeludium is warmly played by the orchestra and then we hear the fifth soloist, concertmaster, Michel Schwalbé whose sweet-toned playing delights during a slow, rapt introduction to the Benedictus. Schwalbé’s pure-toned playing complements the distinguished singing of the quartet throughout the movement.

The opening of the Agnus Dei is ideally dark and solemn. Walter Berry’s voice is firm and, even at a quiet volume, imposing. Karajan generates considerable tension in this opening section and the singing and playing has a palpable intensity. When ‘Dona nobis pacem’ is reached the music has at first a lovely relaxation, which is all the more welcome after the dark emotions that have preceded it. Karajan’s approach put me very much in mind of the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony. Storm clouds are by no means banished, though, and Karajan is equally successful whether the music is turbulent or benign. Eventually, he brings the Missa solemnis home in reassuringly warm D major.

As you’ll have gathered, I think this is a really distinguished account of Beethoven’s masterpiece. The choral singing is very good and highly committed, the orchestral playing consistently distinguished, and the performance boasts what must surely be one of the finest solo quartets on record. Karajan himself is deeply impressive, conducting in a way that convinces in every bar. His attention to detail is scrupulous but it’s his appreciation of the bigger picture that really makes this performance such a success. It’s sobering to be reminded by Gundula Janowitz that when this recording was made in early 1966 “The Missa solemnis was not yet well-established back then, and for many people it was a book sealed with seven seals”. Indeed, as she admits, she herself didn’t know the work all that well when she was engaged to make this recording. Nowadays, of course, we have the benefit of many recordings from which to choose though live performances are something of a rarity, largely on account of the great demands it places upon the choir. Several of today’s available recordings are by period instrument groups and small, professional choirs – I myself have found several such recordings exciting and rewarding. To some listeners, accustomed to ‘lean’ Beethoven, this Karajan performance with its very full sound might seem old-fashioned, to which I can only respond that great music making never goes out of fashion. This performance definitely comes under the heading of great music making.

It's astonishing to think that this recording was made 54 years ago. It has come up magnificently in this remastering. The engineer who captured the performance was Günter Hermann who was also responsible for the excellent engineering of Karajan’s 1961/62 Beethoven symphony cycle. This new remastering shows what a fine job he also did on Missa solemnis. Occasionally it seemed to me that the treble had a very slight fuzziness when the sopranos were singing at full volume at the top of their range. However, this didn’t distract me in the slightest and may not be apparent on other equipment. In all other respects, the sound is terrific and really does justice to the performance.

I did my listening mainly using the Blu-ray disc but I sampled the CD thoroughly, taking good care to sample both loud and soft passages. Anyone who listens to this recording on CD will hear very impressive sound. Incidentally, the timing at the head of this review is correct: the performance has been accommodated on a single CD with a playing time of 86:05. That’s the longest CD I’ve yet encountered but I detected no loss of quality. The BD-A disc offers, I think, sound which has even more presence and definition. Perhaps, too, the BD-A conveys even more than the CD sound, a sense of the acoustic space of the venue. A very useful booklet essay by William Drabkin is an added bonus.

I began with Gundula Janowitz. Having been deeply impressed by her singing, it seems only fitting to end with her. She says of this recording “It really is a recording of the century. The heavens really do open up.”

John Quinn

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