BEETHOVEN Missa Solemnis (Harnoncourt)
This is a remarkable account of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis and, in one important respect, an unusual one. For though it is in no sense lacking in drama, it is in essence a deeply devotional reading. And aptly so. ‘Mit Andacht’ – ‘with devotion’ – Beethoven writes time and again during the course of the work.
Where many of the Mass’s most praised interpreters have treated it as a species of music drama, the god Dionysus never far distant, Harnoncourt’s performance has an atmosphere you might more normally expect to encounter when listening to a piece such as the Fauré Requiem. His aim was to ‘develop the work from silence’ and ‘keep the usual frenzied sonorities within bounds’. A search for inner and outer peace – the aspiration Beethoven writes above the opening bars of the ‘Dona nobis pacem’ – is the performance’s ultimate goal.
Harnoncourt first conducted the Missa solemnis in 1988, when he was nearing his 60th year. That was with modern forces, as was his usual practice in big Beethoven. By the time of these final performances, however, he was using the Arnold Schoenberg Choir and the period instrumentalists of his own Concentus Musicus Wien. The effect of the change is evident from the opening bars, where the soft-grained sonorities of the older instruments and the grieving mood they engender help create the sense that this is no ordinary journey upon which we are about to embark.
The solo violin in the Benedictus notwithstanding, the orchestra is not a principal player in the Missa solemnis. What it does do, however, is establish moods and create atmosphere in such moments as the lead towards the ‘Gratias’ and the ‘Qui tollis’, the Kyrie and the Sanctus. It’s here that the gut strings, the old-fashioned flutes and the three different kinds of clarinet Beethoven asks for (one now defunct) draw forth the quieter, softer colours that are key to establishing the devotional mood Harnoncourt’s performance seeks.
Though he never drives or hectors, Harnoncourt brings a sense of unalloyed joy to the Gloria, after which we experience gentler rhythms and more muted colours during the mysteries of the Credo, a movement Beethoven himself finishes with an upwards Fall, a mysterious vanishing towards the stars.
Not the least of the benefits Harnoncourt brings to the work is the almost tactile feel his choir and soloists have for the Latin text. No performance I know delivers the tenors’ great unaccompanied cry ‘Et resurrexit’ with the voltage of Klemperer’s old 1951 Vox recording (6/53 – nla). Yet Harnoncourt’s is unforgettable too since it marries joy, shock and wonder in more or less equal measure.
The soloists were clearly hand-picked for the enterprise, not least the tenor Johannes Chum, whose singing can best be described as seraphic. The recording, by engineers from Austrian Radio, is mellow-toned yet crystal-clear, so beautifully adjusted are the balances between solo and choral voices and the lovely sounds of Concentus Musicus’s old instruments. I read that Harnoncourt wished this recording to be, in some sense, his personal legacy. It’s not difficult to see why.