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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Missa Solemnis in D, Op. 123
Regine Hangler (soprano)
Elisabeth Kulman (alto)
Christian Elsner (tenor)
Franz-Josef Selig (bass)
MDR Rundfunkchor Leipzig
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin/Marek Janowski
rec. live, 28 September 2016, Berlin Philharmonie
PENTATONE PTC5186565 SACD [73:04]

So much about this Missa Solemnis is perfectly fine; a picture of the capable and the competent. But is that really enough when it comes to this work?

It was this, not the Ninth Symphony, that Beethoven himself saw as the granite masterpiece of his final years. After all, it’s the score that he’s holding in the famous portrait on the CD cover, and it’s surely his greatest statement about mankind’s place in the universe and his relationship to God. You get a hint of that in this recording’s opening, when there’s a quiet majesty to the opening Kyrie. It’s thoughtful, profound and quite moving, and it showcases the quality of Pentatone’s recording the way the soloists grow convincingly out of the orchestral texture, most impressively soprano Regine Hangler, who floats on high while Elisabeth Kulman’s alto underpins with strength from below. Furthermore, the central Christe is full of the beauty that is a key part of what makes the work what it is.

The problems – or, more accurately, the mediocrities – settle in quickly, however. Marek Janowski knows this core German repertoire very well, and he conducts his choir and singers extremely capably. Nowhere, however, do things really catch fire, and neither the pacing nor the energy levels every rise to the level of excitement you want. The opening of the Gloria, for example, is perfectly fine, but it doesn't have the rush you need, and the scalp simply doesn't prickle. That’s also a pretty poor aspect of the big fugues which, both in the Gloria and the Credo, lumber in an ungainly fashion. In fact, Janowski seems more comfortable in the more sedate world of the “Gratias”, and the “Qui tollis” is very pleasant, but that’s the faintest of praise when you compare him to the fireworks of Gardiner or the inner focus of Reuss.

The playing and choral singing is uniformly good, and there is, perhaps, a bit more direction to the start of the Credo, with a good sense of mystery at “Et incarnatus est”, though both here and at “Crucifixus”, tenor Christian Elsner sounds under a lot of pressure.

The Sanctus is better from everyone. It’s gentle and thoughtful, and “Pleni sunt coeli”, here sung by the full choir, even manages to strike up some genuine excitement. The mood of inner peace continues into the Benedictus, but the soloists sound tired here, and the Agnus Dei sounds brooding, even doleful in places, for all that things pick up at “Dona nobis pacem.”

Perfectly fine, then, but surely not enough for anyone who takes this work seriously. Overall this isn’t a recommendation, and my favourites for this work remain unchanged: Gardiner’s first recording (I haven’t yet heard his second), or if you want a live recording go for Daniel Reuss’s (superb) recent account. Otherwise, if it has to be modern instruments, then you can go for Karajan’s classic Berlin account, now newly remastered, or the Salzburg Festival’s Karajan tribute, conducted by James Levine a year after Karajan’s death. For sheer dedication, that one’s hard to beat.

Simon Thompson

Previous review: Dominy Clements

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