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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Missa Solemnis in D major, Opus 123
Amanda Halgrimson (soprano), Cornelia Kallisch (mezzo soprano), John Aler (tenor), Alastair Miles (bass)
NDR Chorus, SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart
South-West German Radio Symphony Orchestra, Stuttgart
Roger Norrington
Rec 21-23 July 1999, Liederhalle Stuttgart
HÄNSSLER CLASSIC CD 93.006 [72.58]
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Perhaps the unique profundity of Beethoven's later music is felt most strongly in the great Missa Solemnis, whose motto - 'From the heart, may it go to the heart' - reflects the tremendous act of faith which was involved. For in this work grandeur and mysticism act in combination, presenting a setting of the text which is both extremely imaginative and intensely personal.

Beethoven wrote the Mass of his own volition, in connection with the installation of his friend and benefactor the Archduke Rudolf as Archbishop of Olmütz, at Cologne Cathedral in 1820. However, the composition was completed only some three years after the ceremony had taken place, with the result that the composer never attended a complete performance of it. The Kyrie, Credo and Agnus Dei were given in Vienna in May 1824 at the concert which also included the premiere of the Ninth Symphony.

In the Missa Solemnis, Beethoven set each of the five sections of the Ordinary to continuous music, symphonic in character. The themes are therefore linked together through the use of development techniques and recurring motifs; and the expressive intensity puts enormous demands on the performers, since the medium of the classical Mass is stretched to unprecedented proportions.

Any performance, whether live or recorded, must therefore be a major undertaking. Sir Roger Norrington has all the necessary credentials, including having made one of the most interesting recorded cycles of the Beethoven symphonies in recent times. And he certainly has the measure of the Missa Solemnis, its scale and its extraordinary visionary power. His dedication makes a strong impression and is felt at every stage of the performance. The Hänssler marketing team evidently thought so too, since on the cover and in the booklet Norrington gets the top billing, his name projected in letters more than twice as large as those allocated to Beethoven. Even Leopold Stokowski, who liked to conduct with the Philadelphia Orchestra positioned behind a screen, might have felt embarrassed by such relative prominence.

There is an impressive team of soloists, among whom the American soprano Amanda Halgrimson is particularly fine, always able to command a complex texture when required to do so. Special plaudits must also go the bass, Alastair Miles, who is quite splendid at the beginning of the Agnus Dei, setting the agenda for the most successful part of the performance. Here the extremes of rapt awe and dramatic intensity make for a movement of supremely balanced structure, and therefore of vision. Such things are not easily achieved.

In a setting of the Mass, the transfer from the Crucifixus into the Et Resurrexit is always a moment of special significance, a fact which is not lost on Beethoven, of course. Norrington generates great tension here through carefully graded dynamics, so when someone is heard dropping an item (a mute?) at this very point, the engineers should surely have used ttheir skills and technology to so something about it. But they didn't, alas.

The performance creates the necessary visionary and epic qualities, but then these are there in the music. Norrington's tempi always feel absolutely right, and it is interesting to note that he takes almost exactly the same time (c73 minutes) as Sir John Eliot Gardiner in his award-winning performance (Archiv 429 779-2). On the hand, less 'authentically' minded conductors can be equally successful with more expansive tempi. Sir Colin Davis, a marvellous interpreter of this piece, takes a full 97 minutes (Philips 438 362-2).

Where this issue is less pleasing is in the quality of the recorded sound, which is patchy if not disappointing. The perspective is somewhat opaque, the sound itself often dull, with a low recorded level which needs to be boosted in order to make any impact. The music sounds best in the less complex passages, texturally speaking, such as the wonderful violin solo which comes at tempo Adagio in the Benedictus, or in the stirring acclamations for unaccompanied chorus at the outset of the Et Resurrexit.. But too often the sound seems congested in fully scored music, which means most of the work.

The organisation of the booklet is curious. In order to follow the words, the reader must come to terms with having the full Latin text in small print on a single page. Then the translations are offered in German, French, English and Spanish, side by side across six pages. The biographies and the accompanying essay, the latter having a broad sweeping vision of the music's significance in Western culture but offering little insight into the music itself, appear also in these four languages, making for a substantial booklet. Only reluctantly will this fit into its allotted slot in the CD case.

This new recording of one of music's major works is a mixed success, although there are undoubtedly some visionary and compelling moments.

Terry Barfoot

See also review by David Wright

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Missa Solemnis




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