This is a special performance of Beethoven’s great, if rather
unwieldy, late mass.
In order for the work to convince over its 85-minute span, you need
to believe in what Beethoven was attempting to accomplish, both in the
sacred and secular sphere. Harnoncourt accomplishes this as well as
I’ve ever heard. He does not slight individual passages of real
beauty, but also sees the whole picture. His is not a thrilling, spontaneous
account in the Bernstein mold. My favorite version until now has been
Bernstein’s first recording with the New York Philharmonic, rather
than his later one with the Concertgebouw. Harnoncourt’s
interpretation is not the monumental sort that Klemperer’s famous
account is, nor is it Beethoven-lite as is Gardiner’s period
instrument recording. Yet, in a sense it has elements of all of the above.
Certainly the Gloria thrills nearly as much as Bernstein’s does and
the Kyrie is as deeply felt as Klemperer’s. The sparing use of vibrato
in the strings and use of hard sticks on the timpani owe much to period
practice, though Harnoncourt’s forces are larger than Gardiner’s
- especially the choir.
Harnoncourt is a past master when it comes to period performance. He
has tempered this in recent years, but vestiges of his former ways
occasionally turn up in this performance. The emphatic stress on the first
syllable of “credo
” is a good example, as is, in a lesser
way, the accent on the first syllable of “pacem
”. In the
past, this practice could detract from the performance as a whole. Here it
is more subtle and seems of a piece with the conductor’s
interpretation. As James Jolly points out in the booklet notes, this
performance “emphasises the aspect of spiritual communion and does so
with heart-stopping intensity.”
Watching and listening to this blu-ray moved me immensely. I
expected nothing less from the wonderful orchestra, but the choir surpassed
my expectations. What a beautifully blended sound they make and nowhere more
so than in the “dona nobis pacem
” refrains. Absolutely
spine-tingling moments! The four well-matched soloists are superb both in
their individual solos and as a group - less operatic than some others
I’ve heard, including Bernstein’s, and all the better for it.
Visually, the production is also a success. Harnoncourt divides the
violins on opposite sides of the podium with the other strings in front of
him in a semi-circle, then the winds and brass, with the timpani at the back
right and the soloists standing in front of the chorus. This arrangement
seems to aid in clarity of the inner parts of the score. The diction of both
chorus and orchestra is also exemplary. Harnoncourt, visibly moved by what
his performers have accomplished, takes particularly long pauses after the
. He sits down as if in meditation for nearly
two minutes after each of these sections before resuming his place on the
The total timing of the mass as indicated in the booklet is nearly
90 minutes, of which over four minutes are pauses between the sections.
Thus, the timing of the mass I listed in the head note is the actual playing
time without pauses.
The camerawork is some of the best I have seen in such concert
videos. No section of the choir or orchestra has been slighted. When there
is a solo the camera usually focuses on the soloist, whether vocalist or
instrumentalist. There are several shots of the performers as a whole and
more of Harnoncourt conducting, but those are not overdone. The video
director, Joost Honselaar, deserves much credit for this production.
Technically, the blu-ray video is first-rate both in sharpness and
colour and the sound also leaves nothing to be desired. I listened to the
disc separately on my stereo equipment without video and was impressed with
the quality - as to dynamic range, depth of sound, and clarity.
Included on the disc are the usual trailers, this time with the
following four: Tutto Verdi, in celebration of the 200th
anniversary; Beethoven symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic and Christian
Thielemann; Haydn’s rarely performed opera Il Mondo della Luna
with Harnoncourt and the Theater an der Wien - the most enticing of the
trailers - and Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail
soloists of the Gran Theatre del Liceu under Ivor Bolton, staged by Christof
The booklet has a single note by Gramophone’s James Jolly that
is informative, but reads more like a review of the performance than a
discussion of the work.
In sum, there are many well-known and highly respected performances
of Beethoven’s choral masterpiece available on CD, including
Harnoncourt’s earlier performance, but I cannot imagine any surpassing
this new one especially when it comes to the visual medium. As video and
audio this represents state of the art.