Beethoven Missa Solemnis

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Beethoven Missa Solemnis

  • Mass in D, 'Missa Solemnis'

It is extraordinary that in the short time since the publication of Choral Music on Record (ed. Blyth; Cambridge: 1991), three marvellous performances—or at least, so they are to my mind—should have been added to the catalogues. In that book, the chapter on Beethoven's great Mass fell to my lot, and what I found in the recorded versions was that greatness, intermittent or sustained, seemed always to co-exist with flaws, whether in the constituents or in the recorded sound itself, particularly in matters of balance. Gardiner, whose Archiv Produktion recording appeared at about the same time as the book, caught the greatness, rose to it with his uncanny freshness of perception, and secured a performance that was produced virtually without fault. Levine on DG, with what we would probably still call 'conventional' forces (but of totally unconventional magnificence), presented a large-scale performance, not universally liked, but one which, as I replay it now, impresses me almost unequivocally as it did on first hearing. And now comes this one from Harnoncourt: very different from either of the others, but having at least equally upon it the stamp of devotion and of high attainment. Choir and orchestra achieve wonderful precision and clarity of articulation; they are sensitive to the needs of shading, to the ever-shifting balance of the parts, and to the purpose of cross-rhythms which at first may look like anarchy. The soloists, all of them meeting their immense individual challenges, also work intelligently as a quartet. Directing it is what one would feel (even if no name were attached) to be a controlling wisdom: the tempos, for instance, all gain acceptance in relation to one another, and there is that essential interchange between the temperate and the extreme.
It might be good simply to let criticism rest at this point. Here is a fine performance of a great work: enjoy it. But once comparisons start, such simplicity begins to melt. There is no doubt that Gardiner's performance is more brightly, sharply, recorded. Returning to Harnoncourt after listening to a few minutes of that is to feel a relative remoteness of contact with the sound. Moving then to Levine, there is again a more immediate presence in the sound. That comparison certainly demonstrates Harnoncourt's point about the booming internal resonance of modern timpani as opposed to the cleaner and indeed more exciting precision of the older type which he himself uses. It is true also that when Levine, with his massive forces in the Salzburg Hall (which is where Harnoncourt is performing too), wishes to move ''Et resurrexit'' fast, the spring in his rhythm gets trammelled up in reverberation. Yet Harnoncourt in this three-way comparison emerges as a kind of halfway-house between Gardiner and Levine, and not quite as colourful as either. It may well be that an undecided reader may opt for Gardiner finally for the much more mundane reason that his performance is confined to a single disc (and after all it was Gramophone Record of the Year in 1991). Yet, listening again to the Credo, there is something almost military in the way Gardiner's people march along, and, as Harnoncourt stresses, the whole Mass is above all ''an appeal for peace''. Harnoncourt's is a performance of great integrity: that is, it is a complete, consistent whole, and all its parts are sound.'

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