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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Mass in C major, op. 86 (1807) [46:19]
Vestas Feuer, Hess 115 (Vesta’s Fire) [10:55]
Meerstille und glückliche Fahrt, op. 112 (1815) [8:03]
Kaisa Ranta (soprano), Nina Keitel (mezzo-soprano), Topi Lehtipuu (tenor), Tuomas Katajala (tenor), Nicholas Söderland (bass)
Chorus Cathedralis Aboensis
Turku Philharmonic Orchestra/Leif Segerstam
rec. 2018, Turku, Finland
NAXOS 8.574017 [65:29]

Beethoven’s Mass in C of 1807 is always overshadowed by his Mass in D of some twelve years later, which of course rivals Bach’s B minor Mass in the ranks of great Mass settings.  That’s a great pity, because the earlier work is a fine one, and has a freshness and directness that is very appealing. It is also a realistic choice for good quality amateur choirs. That’s not to say that it’s an easy work to sing; it isn’t, but it certainly doesn’t present the almost superhuman challenges of the later work. Beethoven remains close to the symphonic approach epitomised by the later Haydn masses, which is not surprising, as the work was commissioned by Prince Nikolaus Esterházy II for performance at Eisenstadt, just as Haydn’s had been.  Beethoven even keeps to some of the word-setting conventions that Haydn had established, though the younger composer’s personality inevitably floods through every bar of the piece. 

A year after the premiere at Eisendtadt, Beethoven then conducted sections of the work at that famous (notorious?) concert in Vienna in December 1808, when the audience were also subjected to the premieres of the 5th and 6th Symphonies, the 4th Piano Concerto and the Choral Fantasia!
An added attraction of this recording is the inclusion of two comparative rarities.  The first is Vesta’s Feuer of 1803, a fragment of a projected opera, setting words by Emanuel Schikaneder, nowadays famous chiefly as Mozart’s friend and collaborator (he was the first Papageno in Die Zauberflöte, and wrote the libretto). He was, however, a celebrated figure in Vienna at the beginning of the 19th century, and founded the Theater an der Wien.  Beethoven made a start on setting Schikaneder’s libretto, but only got as far as the first scene before running out of enthusiasm for the task.  All was not lost, however, as he was able to use some of the material in Fidelio.

The three soloists, soprano Kaisa Ranta, tenor Tuomas Katajala, and bass Nicholas Söderland do an honest job, but for some reason, Pyramus and Thisbe kept coming to mind……. nevertheless, there is only one other available recording (Andrew Davis’ rather fine one on DG from 1996, with Susan Gritton, Robin Leggate and Gerald Finlay), so this makes a useful coupling.

The final item on the disc is a rather different matter.  It’s a setting of poems by Goethe, Meerstille, and glückliche Fahrt, usually translated as ‘Calm Sea and a Prosperous Voyage’. That is a little misleading, however, as the whole point is that the boat in question is dangerously becalmed, and can only begin its journey when the wind rises – which it duly does in the second poem.

Beethoven captures the eerie calm of the first section superbly (as does Mendelssohn in his concert overture on the same subject), with some original and rather daring pianissimo writing for the choir - and if the breezy (sorry) main theme of the second section reminds you of ‘For he’s a jolly good fellow’, well – I’m afraid that’s your problem.

And what of the Mass?  Segerstam is a more than efficient conductor, and does what he can with what sounds like a very youthful chorus.  The fresh sound they make has charm, but the sopranos and tenors in particular are seriously underpowered.  Though they have no problems coping with Beethoven’s often very high writing, there just isn’t enough ‘oomph’ for the big moments and sometimes, in more sustained singing, the soprano tone ‘bleaches’ rather unpleasantly.  The orchestral playing is very acceptable, and Segerstam, experienced instrumental conductor that he is, brings out satisfyingly the many lovely details in the scoring. 

The soloists, including the excellent tenor Topi Lehtipuu, make a good group but the performance and recording overall don’t come close to what is for me the finest version currently on record, that conducted by Richard Hickox on Chandos’ Chaconne label.  He has a superb choir and orchestra in Collegium Musicum 90, and a group of soloists, led by Rebecca Evans, who when required sing with impeccable musical ensemble – they are actually listening to each other! The whole thing, in Hickox’s secure hands, has an energy that is thrilling.

So this is an interesting programme from Segerstam and his forces, but unfortunately the performances lack the sparkle to make them real contenders.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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