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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Missa solemnis (1818-23)
Bozena Harasimowicz (soprano); Monica Groop (mezzo); Jerry Hadley (tenor); Franz-Josef Selig (bass)
London Philharmonic Choir; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Gilbert Levine.
rec. World Youth Day, Cologne, Germany, 2005.
Includes speech by the Pope
DVD 16:9 Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1. Picture format 16:9
ARTHAUS MUSIK 102 061 [85:00]

The Pope's tribute to Beethoven that precedes this live account of the Missa solemnis is an eloquent one. Yet the performance that follows is merely good. Under the conductorship of Gilbert Levine, the LPC and the RPO give an account that rarely projects the work's true nature. The Missa solemnis is a huge work - four of its five movements last in excess of a quarter of an hour - and it demands a huge interpretation. Not necessarily one of massed forces; ‘huge’ rather in the sense that it reflects the momentous issues it addresses.

The physical setting could hardly be better. Of course the cameras are going to pass around Cologne's magnificent cathedral – what better backdrop could there be? Of course the vast space of this Cathedral will cause blurring of textures, and that does indeed prove to be the case, although possibly less frequently than one might expect. The occasion was however auspicious as this recording was taken down from the XX World Youth Day, 2005. We are told that Sir Gilbert Levine was awarded Knight Commander of St Gregory for his efforts to reconcile the World's religions (now there's a worthy cause!).

The soloists were obviously carefully picked. The soprano, Bozena Harasimowicz, has a wonderfully pure voice that suits the pious nature of the work perfectly. But right from the start one becomes aware that Gilbert does not quite have the measure of the work. Parts appear rushed in a way that would be anathema to the work's greatest interpreters. My favoured conductors are Bernstein – DG – and Giulini, the latter of which I heard conduct the Missa at London's RFH many years ago.

If the Gloria blazes to a certain extent, it is marred by weak tenors; not exactly together, either. This long movement needs a conductor possessed of the highest structural hearing, and Levine alas is not that conductor. The great arrival at 'Pater omnipotens' works only quite well, being purely dynamic-led. Some fanciful camera-work as the counterpoint progresses will I am sure please some - stained-glass windows - better is the long-shot from the back of the cathedral towards the end.

That cathedral acoustic does lead to a blunting of choir/solo woodwind juxtapositions in the Credo, but it is not as disturbing as the strained tenors (again) at the 'Et resurrexit'. Gratuitous shots of figurines dotted around the Cathedral were, to this reviewer, frankly irritating. Yet it is the Sanctus, that movement that can be of sublime bliss, that things get really stilted.

If bass soloist Franz-Josef Selig comes into his own in the Agnus Dei (nicely focused), and the trumpets and drums section comes off well, it is not really enough to rescue the performance. The longish silence that greets the work's close – this is the cynic in me – seems to be less rapt stillness than an audience who were not sure the piece had actually finished.

Maybe not ... but I remain sure this changed no-one's life. The choral contributions are fine - except for the rather lightweight tenors - and the orchestra is also fine. But this is the Missa solemnis ...

Colin Clarke



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