Magnificent Beethoven from the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Something wonderful took place at the Barbican on Sunday afternoon: Nikolaus Harnoncourt brought the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra to London for a rare performance of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis. (The orchestra returns twice in the coming weeks as part of its Barbican Residency, once with Mariss Jansons in Richard Strauss and then with Jansons's predecessor-but-one Bernard Haitink in Bruckner – Red Letter events.)
I can remember the days when Mahler’s Second was an event and Mahler’s Eighth a real occasion, but nowadays you can catch a Mahler Second every couple of months and a Mahler Eighth at least once a year. Which leaves one wondering which big (great) choral work is left with the power to shock and awe. I’d suggest that Beethoven's Missa solemnis fits the bill perfectly: it’s big (just shy of 90 minutes), it requires substantial forces (about the same as Beethoven’s Ninth) and its ambition is colossal. And Harnoncourt's performance was magnificent.
It says a lot about Harnoncourt’s vision of the work that, during the two brief pauses, not a word was spoken in the audience: the tension was that high. Harnoncourt’s relationship with the great Dutch orchestra is a close one and they play beautifully for him: violins were antiphonally divided and vibrato was sparingly applied, the timpani played with hard sticks, and the sound was wonderfully focused. This was not a performance to storm the heavens, though the splendid Netherlands Radio Choir can certainly make a magnificent sound, but rather it emphasised the moments of spiritual communion – and did so with a heart-stopping intensity. The soloists (Marlis Petersen, Elisabeth Kulman, Werner Güra and Gerald Finley) – seated between orchestra and choir – were excellent (Kulman especially so).
After the performance, Wigmore Hall’s boss John Gilhooly, chairman of the Royal Philharmonic Society, presented Harnoncourt with the RPS’s Gold Medal. Harnoncourt’s short speech was typically humble, pointing out that without the composers and the performers with whom he works, he would be a ‘speck of dust’. He paid tribute to Alfred Deller with whom he worked back in 1951, and who brought Harnoncourt over to his Kent festival. His quiet humility was touching and I'm sure he winced when Gilhooly referred to him as 'Maestro Harnoncourt': it's hard to think of a less maestro-ly conductor than Harnoncourt.
James Jolly is Gramophone's Editor-in-Chief. After four years of co-presenting BBC Radio 3's weekday morning programme "Classical Collection" has moved to Sunday mornings, with Rob Cowan his fellow presenter; he also hosts some Saturday afternoon shows. His blogs will explore live and recorded music, as well as downloading and digital delivery.