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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Missa Solemnis [78:59]
Mass in C major [43:17]
Christus am Ölberge [53:55]
Pamela Coburn, Katherine van Kampen, Maria Venuti (sopranos) Florence Qhivar, Ingeborg Danz (altos), Aldo Baldin, Keith Lewis (tenors), Andreas Schmidt, Michel Brodard (basses)
Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart
Bach-Collegium Stuttgart/Helmut Rilling
rec. 1993-97, Stuttgart, Germany
HÄNSSLER CLASSIC HC20027 [3 CDs: 176:11]

These recordings of Beethoven’s three largest choral and orchestral works were all made in the 1990s. Though some of the soloists differ, the choir, orchestra, venue and conductor are all the same, so it makes perfect sense to issue them in a box during the ‘Beethovenjahr’.

The principal work is of course, the Mass in D, the Missa Solemnis, one of the supreme choral works, which Beethoven completed in 1824. The Mass in C, so often overshadowed by the later, greater work, was first performed in 1807, and, though it is manifestly influenced strongly by the late Haydn Masses, it is a much better work than is sometimes realised. Indeed, the Missa Solemnis itself still shows the Haydn influence in the way it deals with the text – and none the worse for it.

‘Christus am Ölberge’ is the least well-known and the least often recorded of the three works. It was first performed in Vienna in 1803, just a couple of days before the première of the ‘Eroica’. It’s fair to say that the bulk of Beethoven’s work must have gone into the symphony, and he claimed that this oratorio had been written in less than two weeks. Good going for Beethoven, who certainly was not a rapid worker alla Mozart.

It’s interesting that the performance of the Mass in D is the finest of the three recordings in this set. It’s a make-or-break kind of piece; if those involved can cope with it at all, it tends to bring out the best in them, and that is the case here. Rilling clearly has a very large choir at his disposal, and they make a tremendous sound. The sopranos are able to deal tirelessly with the often cruelly high writing for them. The altos make a strong, rich contribution, as do the basses, while the tenors are superb. Many choirs would give their conductor’s right arm for a section like this! ‘Quoniam tu’ in the Gloria and ‘Et resurrexit’ in the Credo are just two places that are especially thrilling because of the tenors’ excellence.

The orchestra does a very good job, even if some of the woodwind detail gets lost in the rather soupy acoustic. The lower strings also lose out badly because of the peculiar recorded balance, with much indistinct grumbling from the double basses, which I’m sure isn’t their fault. On the other hand, Rilling allows the brass to fully assert themselves, which goes mightily towards the physical impact this work has to make.

The soloists are individually good, though they often sing too loudly. I don’t blame the recording for this; I think it’s more in the minds of the singers that they need to belt everything out, and this can lead to very unsubtle singing. To be fair, Beethoven has a hand in this, often pitting the soloists unhelpfully against the large forces of choir and orchestra.

I was most impressed with the two big movements – the Gloria and the Credo- where Rilling’s pacing of the music, with its frequent hazardous changes of pulse and tempo, is very impressive, and the cumulative effect of the Gloria, in particular, is magnificent. The Sanctus and Benedictus are not so satisfactory; the intense, numinous quality, such as you find in the great readings by such as Toscanini, Giulini or Klemperer, is missing, well though all participants perform.

Incidentally, the presentation of this box is hardly lavish; there are no notes on the works, no texts at all (which would have been much appreciated for Christus am Ölberge), and no crediting of the fine violin soloist in the Benedictus of the Mass. Disappointing. (Incidentally, why do record companies so rarely name-check key instrumental performers, whose contributions can be every bit as crucial as the nominated soloists? Violin here, oboe in the Brahms Violin Concerto, bassoon in Shostakovich 4, trombone in Mahler 3, etc. Hrrumph.)

Another missed opportunity is the Agnus Dei, which can be searingly dramatic. This is where performances like those of Toscanini – 1939 and 1953 – can really blow your mind with their explosions of drama at the intrusions of military music. This version is relatively tame.

The Mass in C on CD 2 is similarly meticulously prepared, and, even though recorded four years earlier than the Mass in D, benefits from the same outstanding choral singing. For me the big drawback is the soprano Katherine van Kampen, an experienced singer who yet sings constantly too loudly, especially in ensemble passages for the soloists, which are thus sometimes quite unpleasant to listen to. On the other hand, the New Zealand-born tenor, Keith Lewis, sings with real beauty and feeling, a soft grained voice which has something of a Fritz Wunderlich quality.

Again, it’s the big central movements, the Gloria and Credo, which work best. The ‘Et Incarnatus’ section in the Credo has a powerful emotional quality – which Beethoven expanded in the later Mass, though the seeds of it are here – and that is superbly realised in Rilling’s version.

It is good to have the oratorio Christus am Ölberge here on CD3, completing the box set. This neglected work has some really fine music in it, even if the choral aspect is disappointingly thin – of its fifty-three minutes’ duration, only about fifteen feature the chorus, and it is nigh on twenty minutes before we get the first entry of the choir. Add to that the fact that the arias for the various soloists - soprano, tenor and bass – are substantial and demanding, and it’s no wonder choral societies are reluctant to programme it!

It opens with a darkly impressive orchestral Introduction, in the extremely rare main key of E flat minor. That is followed by a recitative and aria for the tenor in the part of Christ, as he contemplates the fate that awaits him. The recitative is genuinely dramatic, with powerful interventions from the orchestra, and the aria gives ample opportunities for the lyrical tenor of Keith Lewis, so impressive in the Mass in C.

Despite any shortcomings in the oratorio itself, this recording is well worthwhile hearing for the quality of the solo singing alone. The soprano Maria Venuti is pretty stunning in the next number, the aria ‘Preist des Erlösers Güte’ (‘Praise the Redeemer’s Goodness’). It’s a florid aria with a very high tessitura (many a high B or C, and one D), and the brightness and clarity of her voice is a delight. It makes this aria the highlight of the whole oratorio for me, especially as it is charmingly orchestrated, with Haydnesque writing for flute, bassoon and oboe soloists. And this is where the chorus enters – at last!

The chorus ‘Wir haben ihn gesehen’ (‘We have seen Him’) is for male voices, and would frankly be more suitable for the lighter moments of Mozart’s ‘Magic Flute’ (think Monostatos and his pals!), and makes no attempt to summon up the violence of the mob hunting for Jesus.

Further on, a recitative and trio give a brief opportunity for the third soloist, bass Michel Brodard, taking the role of Peter. Near the end comes a chorus in which we have divided tenors and basses, with the tenors representing the disciples and the basses the soldiers. Then a couple of rejoicing (?) choruses, ‘Hallelujah’ and ‘Praise Him, the choir of angels’ bring the work to an incongruously joyful conclusion.

So a mixed bag - or box. A most unsatisfactory booklet, but two Mass performance that are thoroughly worth hearing, added to an interesting rarity. The recording quality is mostly acceptable, but no more than that.

My personal recommendations for the first two would be Toscanini (1939 on BBC Legends, or 1953 on RCA, take your pick) or Giulini (EMI Classics) for the Missa Solemnis, and Richard Hickox’s splendid Mass in C on Chaconne, with his outstanding solo group headed by Rebecca Evans.

Gwyn Parry-Jones



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