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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN
Missa solemnis in D, Op. 123.
Edda Moser (soprano); Hanna Schwarz (contralto); René Kollo (tenor); Kurt Moll (bass); Radio Chorus of the N. O. S., Hilversum; Concertgebouw Orchestra/Leonard Bernstein.
DG Galleria 469 546-2 [ADD] [81.00]
Crotchet  £7.99  Amazon UK   £6.99  Amazon US

Bernstein's compulsive but idiosyncratic Missa solemnis fits (just) onto one full-length CD, a triumph of convenience if ever there was one. Edited together from two live performances in the Concertgebouw in 1979, this is a major achievement that consistently puts the listener in awe of the magnitude of Beethoven's magnificent creation.

The opening Kyrie is marked 'Assai sostenuto', and 'sostenuto' is certainly one word to describe it: monumental is another. At this speed, one feels for the stratospheric sopranos at their exposed entries (they cope as well as can be humanly expected), but the impression is that this is but one step on a long journey. Admission of mortal frailty at this stage is not necessarily a bad thing.

The contrast with the ensuing Gloria is as violent as possible. Bernstein's tempo is fast and furious (a live performance I heard conducted by Giulini went to the opposite extreme, leading to a cataclysmic 'Deus Pater omnipotens': and, incidentally, no necessary slamming on of the brakes at the following 'Domine Fili unigenite'). However, Bernstein is never merely impulsive. The Gloria (about 18 minutes long) emerges as spiritually exhausting: the insistent, huge fugue on 'In Gloria Dei Patris' is given absolutely full weight. With Bernstein, the final choral cry of 'Gloria', thrown out almost as a challenge from Mankind, is too near to overwhelming for comfort.

The intensity of the Credo might seem to some almost too much after that: this is at no point a performance for the faint-hearted. The statements of 'I believe in one God' ('Credo in unum Deum') are so powerful they seem to dare the Almighty himself to contradict them, and I doubt whether any God would, omnipotent or not. Hardly surprisingly for Bernstein, the contrast at 'Et incarnatus est' is complete: peace reigns, shrouded in peace and holy mystery. Just as Beethoven's faith was all-encompassing, so Bernstein dares to reflect this in his performance.

Herman Krebbers' violin solo in the 'Benedictus' section of the Sanctus begs for mention. He is pure of tone and beautifully ethereal. The vocal soloists are vibrant (in all senses, especially the contralto, Hanna Schwarz) but this is not entirely inappropriate to the scale of Bernstein's conception. The bass Kurt Moll is particularly emotive in the Agnus Dei.

Despite some rampant idiosyncrasies, Bernstein never descends into sludge or sentimentality. His Hilversum chorus clearly give their all (such was the personality of the man I doubt anything less was possible). The sum of the constituent parts is an extraordinary achievement. The meeting of three big personalities (Beethoven, Bernstein and, if you care to believe in him, God) here leads to a classic performance, a million galaxies away from any authenticist response (for which, go to John Eliot Gardiner with the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists on Archiv 429 779-2). The Missa solemnis, more than most texts, will continue to generate a multiplicity of fertile approaches. You should experience this one, without a shadow of doubt.


Colin Clarke

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