...and he wouldn’t have forgotten the Chorus
Beethoven's Missa solemnis is performed all too rarely. Every amateur group does the wonderful Mozart and Verdi Requiems but Beethoven’s greatest work (in the composer’s own estimation) is of a different magnitude, making huge demands on the chorus as much as on the soloists and orchestra. This weekend’s engaging performance with the Philharmonia Chorus and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment at the Royal Festival Hall was given in memory of Sir Charles Mackerras, president of the Chorus and emeritus conductor of the Orchestra, whose performances have given me pleasure over more than a quarter of a century.
The Philharmonia Chorus sang for Sir Charles numerous times over some 35 years, including in the Missa solemnis, though I never saw him conduct them in this. But I have heard the Philharmonia Chorus perform the work before, when it was going through its incarnation as the New Philharmonia Chorus. It was an auspicious date: December 16, 1970, Ludwig van’s 200th birthday. I was meant to be at a Clifford Curzon Beethoven concert in Hendon, but when I received a last-minute invitation to the Royal Festival Hall I had no option but to play truant, for this was Carlo Maria Giulini’s homage to Beethoven, with the New Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra joined by Martina Arroyo, Anna Reynolds, Robert Tear and Marius Rintzler. A rendering I remember to this day.
Great collaborators and conductors are part of the Philharmonia Chorus’s fabric: it was back in 1957, when Walter Legge was working with Otto Klemperer to record their iconic cycle of Beethoven’s symphonies with the Philharmonia Orchestra. Short of a chorus for the last movement of the Ninth, they recruited Wilhelm Pitz, chorus master at Bayreuth, to produce a ‘disciplined but hearty’ choir. As the Chorus's biography recalled: ‘Pitz’s chorus sings its first notes in public. Hesitant? Certainly not. Clipped and ordered? Sort of. Thrusting, emotional, textured, gripping? Absolutely. Unusual? Completely. The Philharmonia Chorus is born.’
Last year the chorus was given an adrenalin shot with the appointment as chorus master No 8 of Stefan Bevier, who, as a member of the Berlin Philharmonic’s Orchestra Academy, regularly deputised for them under Karajan. With phenomenal energy, he has engendered a palpable excitement within the chorus, which now combines skilful amateurs with a sprinkling of contracted young professionals, a formula which seems to work.
Gianandrea Noseda was the conductor this time and after he brought back his quartet of soloists – Anne Ellersiek, Michaela Wehrum-Gandenberger, Mark Adler (the tenor and the most effective of them) and Patrick Schramm – for their curtain call he seemed to forget about the chorus. Which was a shame. When Stefan Bevier acknowledged them the applause moved up a gear. I enjoyed their rendering of the great 'Amen' chorus.
Sir Charles wouldn’t have forgotten them! He deserved this tribute and he is missed.
Antony Craig started going to Covent Garden in 1962 and has probably been to more than 1000 performances at the Royal Opera House alone. He also finds time to sing in two choirs and is Production Editor of Gramophone.