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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770–1827)
Missa Solemnis in D, Op. 123
Alison Hagley (soprano), Marjana Lipovšek (mezzo-soprano), Thomas Moser (tenor), Matthias Hölle (bass)
Rudolf Scholz (organ)
Wiener Singverein
ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra/Michael Gielen
rec. live, 18–19 April 1985, Musikverein, Vienna
ORFEO C999201 [74:26]

Michael Gielen (1927–2019) was a highly distinguished German conductor whose reputation, at least outside the German-speaking countries, has perhaps been unfairly constrained by his particularly close association with the music of the Second Viennese School and many contemporary composers. In fact his repertoire was very wide. The SWF Music label began issuing a ten-volume ‘Michael Gielen Edition’ soon after the conductor’s retirement – due to increasing problems with his sight – in 2014; and this has already included the complete symphonies of Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler and indeed (due for issue this very month) Beethoven. Many of these recordings derive from radio broadcasts featuring the sadly now defunct South West German Radio Symphony Orchestra (Sinfonieorchester des Südwestrundfunks), based in Baden-Baden and Freiburg, of which Gielen was Chief Conductor from 1986 to 1999, and then Conductor Laureate until his retirement. He also, however, worked regularly with a number of other radio orchestras, including the BBC Symphony and, as in the present recording, the premier orchestra of Austrian Radio.

In the Beethoven symphonies, Gielen had something of a reputation as a speed merchant, due not least to his respect for Beethoven’s own highly controversial metronome markings. But in this 35-year-old recording of the Missa Solemnis (here issued, as far as I can tell, for the first time) his tempi are for the most part unremarkable – with the exception of the first and last sections of the Gloria, which are pretty hard-driven, meaning that the movement as a whole comes it at a tad over sixteen minutes. Overall, though, by comparison with other recordings whose timings I consulted, Gielen’s timings are pretty much middle-of-the-road: he is five or so minutes faster than Harnoncourt, Klemperer or Levine, but markedly slower than John Eliot Gardiner or Frieder Bernius. Pretty much what you would expect, in other words, from an essentially mainstream performance that is neither monumental nor, in the modern sense, ‘historically informed’.

And to be honest the evidence of the stopwatch is basically confirmed by the evidence of one’s ears. This really is one of those discs which are in almost every respect good, but not exceptional. The performance has Gielen’s trademark clarity of both structure and texture, but the latter is hampered a bit by a mid-1980s recording that, whilst wholly acceptable, cannot entirely hide its radio-quality origins. Similarly, his conducting is never heavily portentous in what we think of as the traditional way, but his rhythmic articulation can be over-emphatic, as for example in the ‘Gratias agimus’ part of the Gloria, and in some passages of the Credo. His soloists are all very much up to the task, but have large-ish operatic voices with vibrato to match; and this can lead to issues of blending when they sing together. With the exception of a few bars in the ‘Pleni sunt coeli’ part of the ‘Sanctus’, which threaten briefly to disintegrate, the Wiener Singverein are good; and so are the orchestra. The unnamed concertmaster’s great solo in the ‘Sanctus’, however, is here rather prosaic, and characterized by tone that – on my equipment at least – can sound brittle.

One way and another, I am conscious of being in danger of damning this issue with faint praise; and Gielen and his forces deserve more than that. Anyone hearing this issue will enjoy it, and admire the conductor’s lucidity of thought, concern for the work’s ebb and flow, and generally judicious mixture of drama and spirituality (though overall he is probably better at the former than the latter). That said, good recordings of the Missa solemnis are legion, and even great ones are not exactly thin on the ground. In that context a live performance from the mid-1980s retailing at premium price needs to be truly outstanding to be competitive; and, for the reasons given, this one isn’t really that. It certainly does Gielen’s memory no harm, but there is now not exactly a shortage of recordings by him that embellish it at least as much. For example, his Mahler cycle is terrific (see review), and finds him on more consistently inspired form than does this testimony to his Beethoven.
Nigel Harris

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