> The Beecham Collection: Beethoven [JW]: Classical CD Reviews- Aug 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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The Beecham Collection
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Mass in D Major Op 123 Missa Solemnis
Isobel Baillie, soprano
Mary Jarred, contralto
Heddle Nash, tenor
Keith Falkner, baritone
Leeds Festival Chorus
H Percy Richardson, organ
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham
Recorded live in Leeds Town Hall 5 October 1937 at the Leeds Triennial Music Festival.
SOMM-BEECHAM 11 [78’10]


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Simply magnificent. I am sorely tempted to leave it at that because no words of mine could ever convey the drama, the majesty, the intimacy and unexpected depth of this live performance from the 1937 Leeds Triennial Music Festival, one of only two performances of the Missa Solemnis that Beecham ever gave. I say unexpected because of Beecham’s occasional penchant for Beethoven-bating but this is a searing and extraordinary interpretation by which I was completely transfixed throughout its entire length. The performance was given on the morning of the 5th October and repeated in London a week later at a Royal Philharmonic Society concert. The only change was that for the London performance Harold Williams replaced Keith Falkner. Of course it’s not necessarily for the most fastidious of ears – there are some minor aural problems; considerable timpani overload in the Kyrie and some negligible wear on the unique copies that have survived in otherwise impressive condition. One is acutely aware of the care taken, despite Beecham’s operatic reputation in this regard, to balance choir and orchestra and properly to integrate the quartet of singers. As a result the solo entries emerge, in the circumstances, with remarkable fidelity. In the Gloria Isobel Baillie’s soaring beauty of tone and Heddle Nash’s ardent tenor entwine with a naturalness only enhanced by Falkner’s own noble entry. When Mary Jarred joins, lending her consummate contralto, the quartet and the timbres and intensities of its singers become apparent – Baillie, crystalline and pure, Nash, with his uniquely expressive lyricism, Jarred’s affecting plangency and Falkner’s deeply considered seriousness.

The Choir’s dynamic levels have clearly been well prepared and for that, I suspect, considerable praise was due to Norman Strafford, the Leeds Festival Choir’s Chorus Master. The choral singing is deeply impressive – the equal or superior of any choir in the land at the time – and with one or two slight hesitancies apart, unstinting in its overwhelming contribution. The grandeur and sweep of the Gloria is momentous but precise. The male choral entries are as dramatically strong – but scaled – as the female; whereas in the Et Incarnatus est from the Credo there is a corresponding raptness, an inwardness of expression, which reveals itself most fully in the unravelling of solo voices. There is no false piety here – Nash’s clarion declaration swells and falls, hardens and darkens and leads to the benediction of Jarred’s consoling contralto; listen to the strings here at 3’26 for their acute support and maintenance of line. Et resurrexit opens with implacable choral power and the LPO are here on superb form, supportive of the decisiveness and concentratedness of Beecham’s conception. The Sanctus’s affecting tread is followed by a long solo for leader David McCallum in the Benedictus – his sweet, concentrated tone is entirely apt for the vocal quartet’s extraordinary intimacies of expression – the way Baillie succeeds McCallum at 2’35 is truly astonishing, as she coils her tone to blend and fuse with his. Felicities of this kind abound and continue in the Agnus Dei; Falkner may not be ideally secure here initially but he grows in control, freely rolling his "r" with the passion of a Prophet and spreading his solid baritone ever outward. Mary Jarred is especially fine here in her passages before and with Nash and one can see why she was so admired in her day and deplore that she is so unjustly forgotten in our own. The concluding Dona nobis pacem has been hard won, through strife and loss, but the abruptness of its final triumphant orchestral close seems to catch the Leeds audience by surprise.

This performance has been issued before, on Beecham 5, where it was coupled with a performance of Beethoven’s Second Symphony from 1936, to join the three commercially recorded versions of the Symphony. As for the Missa Solemnis it is now the earliest surviving performance on record and one of the most incandescent and moving.

Jonathan Woolf

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