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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770 - 1827) Missa Solemnis in D, Op. 123 (1823) [84.32] Tina Kiberg, sop; Waltraud Meier, mezzo; John Aler, ten; Robert Holl, bass. Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Daniel BarenboimRecorded Orchestra Hall, Chicago, Illinois, USA, May 1993 Notes in English, Français, Deutsch. Latin text, no translations. [No SPARS code, but presumed DDD] Previously released on Erato 4509 91731 WARNER ELATUS [2CDs: 84.32]

Comparison recording
John Eliot Gardiner, English Baroque Soloists DG Archive 429 779-2

Being that I am neither a Christian nor a Beethoven fanatic, this work at the intersection of those two interests has mostly eluded my attention until now. Whenever I have come across reference to this work in my reading, it has been made clear that this is not generally considered to be one of Beethoven’s insuperable masterpieces; that the work has “problems.”

Beethoven’s personal religious beliefs are not and were not clearly known, perhaps even by himself. He is known to have had a then recently translated Egyptian religious text under the glass on his desk while writing the “Ode to Joy” movement of the Ninth Symphony. Indeed one of the criticisms frequently levelled against the Missa Solemnis is that Beethoven seems to have perceived the drama of the text with little sense of reverence or familiarity, and written it as a symphony with voices, although like almost every other European in that age he must have been baptized a Christian at birth. He dispensed with the 37 words of the articles in the credo text in 22 bars at allegro non troppo then wrote a five minute fugue on the “life of the world to come”. One could assume that Beethoven just rebelled against whatever there was — religion, politics, social custom, what-have-you. Like me his religious experience may have consisted of peak experiences of clear sight which came unpredictably and inexplicably and were not related to any orthodox creed or practice.

Although Beethoven did pursue a special study of Church modes and scales during its composition, there is almost no trace of Renaissance Gregorian feel to this work. It is operatic in its aesthetic, and that is not the only similarity between it and the Verdi Requiem of fifty years later. Liszt and Beethoven lived at a time when society was held in the firm grip of entrenched privilege and power, and they heard liberation from this tyranny in the sound of martial music and battle, the overthrowing of the ancien régime by force. That may explain why the words “agnus Dei” are accompanied by an offstage military band, something which sounds very odd to our modern aesthetic.

Barenboim is one of the finest musicians of this time, being a first-rate instrumentalist and conductor and an eloquent spokesman for music. Although hardly limited in any way, his skill is generally focused on German music and his Beethoven performances and recordings especially are among the finest there are. As witness his recent recording of the Choral Fantasia, Barenboim can make second-rate Beethoven sound as close to first-rate as humanly possible, so I approached this disk with my skepticism on my sleeve, expecting to be convinced, perhaps overwhelmed. Certainly by the time we got to the fugue which concludes the gloria section, I was enjoying myself greatly.

John Eliot Gardiner, certainly another of the great conductors of our time, has a particular determination to produce music with a feeling of enthusiasm and spontaneity. One has the feeling that after weeks of strenuous rehearsals, he will announce to the musicians that now it’s time to put the spontaneity back in. At best this works just great. But at times, such as in his Christmas Oratorio recording on DG, the result can be a kind of cloying pertness with everyone trying just a little too hard to care. In his recording of this Beethoven work, the result is excellent music-making, and his recording is generally considered the best version available. Klemperer fans naturally think his is the best version, but I do not care at all for Klemperer’s Beethoven; even this recording. His vocalists are more forward. His overall timing is actually slightly less than Barenboim (the recording fits on one disk) not so much because Barenboim’s tempi are slower, but because Barenboim occasionally makes use of dramatic pauses between phrases where Klemperer just keeps slooooowly turning the crank. Gardiner comes in nearly fifteen minutes under Barenboim, with his tempi on all sections running significantly faster, although when Barenboim and his forces get going with the wind up, it would seem pretty difficult to go much faster. But Gardiner’s performers do go faster, and if those moments of high excitement are what you want, you will prefer the Gardiner performance. Barenboim never appears dawdling, and Gardiner never feels rushed. On the other hand, the Barenboim performance has a slightly more coherent feel, and a slightly more realistic concert hall perspective, so if these are important to you, you will prefer the Barenboim. But flipping a coin may in the end be just as effective.

Paul Shoemaker

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