Beethoven Missa Solemnis. Mozart Mass in C minor

Author: 
John Steane

Beethoven Missa Solemnis. Mozart Mass in C minor

  • Mass in D, 'Missa Solemnis'
  • Mass No. 18, 'Great'

Robert Shaw won the Gramophone Award for the best choral recording of the year with his performance of Verdi's Requiem (Telarc / Conifer CD80152, 3 / 88), but if this new Missa solemnis had been available he would surely have won it with this instead. It may not be till the Credo that the first-time listener begins to suspect that this is not just a good but a great performance, for there is nothing self-proclaiming about it. The Kyrie goes 'without incident': that is, the listener simply spends time among the stately columns of sound leading out upon the gentle rise and fall of a landscape that, in harmony, melody and rhythm conveys assurance of mercy for the faithful supplicant. If we consciously notice the performance at all, it is to be grateful for a good, well-balanced choir, pleasing soloists, able players and a conductor who makes all come together with a natural rightness. The opening of the Gloria, not without splendour and excitement, is above all well-articulated. The paean rises amid clouds of glory but not in honour of the god Bacchus: no autointoxication or self-urged wildness animates this massive release of energy. Through the cantabile of the ''Gratias agimus tibi'' section through the measured gravities of the ''Qui toilis'' and the maestoso of the ''Quoniam'', we are led with a wise control that shows its hand a little more openly with the ''in gloria'' fugue, ben marcato as the score says, and consistent in its dynamics. At each increase of tempo, something is always kept in reserve for the presto finale, and if that passage when it arrives, has not quite the electricity of Toscanini's performances at this point, the effect is sufficiently strong and well judged to bring such a comparison into view, and with it a reminder of the association of the two conductors in this very work.
The Credo starts as a confident march towards the Kingdom, tempo just right, style unaggressively decisive. The ''Crucifixus'' chords jab with excruciatingly exact anticipation of the beat. ''Et resurrexit'' dances for joy, and, with a rare insight, ''Et vitam venturi'' starts as if hesitantly, growing in conviction, building on faith with precise appreciation of the music's growth. The syncopated accents of the Allegro con moto and those hectic bars among the ''Amens'' which normally tend to smudge are clear and clean, yet there is no sense of inhibition and no feeling of looking over the choristers' shoulders at pencil markings in the score. There follows an equally just appreciation of the allegro pesante in the ''Pleni sunt caeli'', setting off the lightness of the next section; then a heavenly performance of the Benedictus, and a fine responsiveness to the changing moods of the Agnus Dei, though perhaps the Presto there ought to spring free of the leash and bound away with more animal energy.
That passage (the orchestral presto near the end of the whole work) is one that we hear, at the end of his recording of the Mass, rehearsed by Dorati. ''As brutally as you can'' he tells them: ''the disorder … the inner disorder … bose, angry.'' The fragments of rehearsal have several moments which are genuinely enlightening, and it is warming to listen-in to these sharp but genial instructions, the points made in song (conductor's song, which is a special brand) as well as speech. Moreover, the performance itself is something of a triumph, finely judged and splendidly sustained. As a recording it is less satisfactory, the acoustic cloudy compared with both Shaw and Karajan (DG) in places where clarity is one of the tests. The choir sound less well balanced (a weakness in the tenor line), and the soloists too are more uneven, honours going decisively to the women. The speech of welcome, which precedes the performance of the Mass, is lengthy and in German. The leaflet, containing an article by the CoPresident of the IPPNW and one by Dorati on ''Inner and Outer Peace'' in the Missa solemnis, also mentions that the participants gave their services free and that profits from the records will go to the victims of atomic explosions and to projects in developing countries.
The Karajan recording, we note, takes two discs for the Missa alone, so that whatever else the new recordings have to offer is pure gain. The fill-ups in Dorati's version comprise the admirable (if lengthy) speech and the interesting snippets of rehearsal, but many will probably find the Great C minor Mass of Mozart a more attractive proposition, inclining them further towards Robert Shaw on Telarc. Unfortunately, the performance by no means matches that of the Beethoven Mass. The hand that kept firm hold of Beethoven's run-away presto is dully restrictive in the Mozart. Using Karajan / DG, Hamoncourt / Teldec / ASV and Gardiner / Philips for comparison, we find all three having more of the prescribed vivace in the opening of the Gloria and more colour in that of the Credo. That their recorded sound is also brighter puts at a further disadvantage a performance which is so deliberate and moderate in styie. The best solo singing is done by Delores Ziegler in the ''Laudamus te'': her tone has some shine and body to it and she is highly efficient in the florid bars. Edith Wiens resourcefully supports the long phrases of the ''Et incarnatus est'', and John Aler (somewhat ineffective in the fortes of the Missa solemnis) sings gracefully in the ''Quoniam'' trio. As a whole, the performance is 'sound' (that is, it raises no hackles as does Harnoncourt on Teldec / ASV, whose hobnailed assertiveness in this work seems to me to become increasingly objectionable), but it leaves the Beethoven to be bought for itself rather than letting its coupling tip the balance.'

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