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Digital Booklet: Beethoven: Missa Solemnis, Op. 123
Digital Booklet: Beethoven: Missa Solemnis, Op. 123
Few great compositions have been spared overexposure. Beethoven' s Missa Solemnis is one of them. The work operates far beyond the comfort zones of most choruses, amateur and professional, and demands full attention from its performers and audiences for 70-plus minutes. It asks big questions, about life s meaning, the nature of death and the Christian promise of eternal salvation, to which Beethoven gives no certain answers. What we hear is a vision of one man's turbulent spiritual landscape, clouded by doubt and fear, projected into music of dramatic, often violent contrasts and expressive extremes. John Eliot Gardiner made a revelatory studio recording of the Missa Solemnis in 1989. His latest thoughts on the work, recorded live at the Barbican Centre last year, are so strongly forged, so persuasive in intent and all-encompassing in delivery, as to defy snappy description. The conductor's interpretation is much more than thoughtful and thought-provoking, although it is both. What he does with the music arises from the core of his identity: this Missa Solemnis is personal, driven by Gardiner's relentless pursuit of excellence and, above, all by his own no-holds-barred battle with the creator spirit. There are times when Gardiner stamps his mark too heavily on details of articulation here, without always carrying the conviction of his excellent musicians. It s in the big picture that we find the true genius of Gardiner s Beethoven, fully unleashed in the work s Gloria and Credo and always alive to moments of transcendence. If you only buy one choral disc this year, make sure it s this one. ***** --Sinfini music, 10/01/14
Such is the visceral intensity of the music-making, a certain girding of the loins may required before a second hearing, but isn't that precisely how it should be with a work of this power and magnitude? GRAMOPHONE CHOICE --Gramophone. Feb'14
It is good that Missa Solemnis should now find a home on Soli Deo Gloria. I don't think it supplants the DG version entirely, but it does have the edge, and, therefore must surely be set to match its predecessor's award winning acclaim. --IRR, Mar'14
It's not difficult to understand why Gardiner wanted this performance perpetuated: fine as the Archiv version is, the new one has an electricity of a kind that's hard to generate under studio conditions. Performance ***** Recording **** --BBC Music Magazine, Apr'14
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So that is partly why this sounds like a rather hard-driven performance. But maybe only partly. Gardiner finishes off the Gloria in 15 1/2 minutes, at least a full minute faster than Toscanini (1940), Norrington, or Kubelik, none of whom were dawdling. And after the sweet sounding opening of his Sanctus, he drives singers and chorus so hard they can hardly articulate their phrases clearly. There are two sides to this coin: Gardiner certainly never sinks into dullness or torpor of the kind that often mark falsely reverent performances, and there certainly are dramatic and beautiful moments here. It's partly the dry acoustics that make his tempos possible, since in a more resonant acoustic the music would become too muddled. But for me, what this performance seems to lack--and again this may be partly the hard sound and occasionally odd balances--is a kind of flowing naturalness. There's no questioning Gardiner's commitment to and understanding of the music, but despite the intense energy and power that sometimes erupt, it still to me sounds a little calculated and over-controlled at times.
A lot of Missas, for me, have fallen by the wayside: Both Bernsteins; Herreweghe's, which I recall as beautiful but with a rather feminine gentleness, lacking drama; Harnoncourt, who just didn't interest me; Klemperer, who I am sorry seems stodgy to me, but with a beautiful chorus; Levine on DG; and Toscanini's BBC and 1950s NBC recordings, which just couldn't compare to his live NBC reading from 1940. I rather liked a Carl Schuricht historical recording from the 1950s, with such beautiful mono sound it seemed like stereo, but a performance that was more beautiful than dramatic; and a Horenstein BBC performance also seemed good.
The ones I turn to often are:
Toscanini NBC (1940): British critics are prone to imagining that Toscanini's BBC performance is the great one, but don't believe them. This one is a towering dramatic achievement, and his meltingly beautiful treatment of passages such as the opening of the Sanctus belie his reputation as a relentlessly driven performer. Only one small criticism, one that shouldn't stop anyone from hearing this: Toscanini assigns the "et incarnatus est" passage in the Credo to his tenor soloist, rather than the tenors of the chorus. Understandable, if your tenor is Jussi Bjorling, but we miss out on the beautifully hushed singing of the chorus in this section. The sound is definitely 1940 sound, fairly limited, but with a single microphone above and behind Toscanini, it still presents a pretty realistic perspective on the proceedings.
Norrington (Hanssler, 2000): Norrington here dispenses with making points about period performance practice and simply delivers a beautiful and dramatic performance with a modern orchestra, shaped more or less like either Kubelik or Toscanini, but with better sound than either. Balances between chorus, orchestra, and soloists are ideal.
Kubelik (Orfeo/1970s): On this one Santa Fe Listener and I agree. You can see our reviews elsewhere here on Amazon.
Ormandy (Sony/1972?): Ormandy, surprisingly, rises to the challenge here and achieves a well-controlled performance with real visceral excitement, far different from his sometimes stodgy, sludgy performances. Despite a slightly rough sounding chorus, this really works--more so for me than Klemperer.