Ever one to confound expectations, the characteristic which first strikes one about Nikolaus Harnoncourt's recording of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis is its broad tempos. Even compared to performances on modern instruments all sections of the Mass setting here are slowly-paced, with the ‘Credo’ coming closest to what might be readily thought of as a ‘normal’ speed, though still not hasty by any means. Timings are not necessarily indicative of very much, but the close-on 82 minutes says something. It adds a couple to the 1982 Proms performance under Solti I reviewed for Classical Source, and where I noted his leisurely way with the ‘Agnus Dei’; Harnoncourt even takes a minute longer there.
Such consistently-drawn breadth tends to obscure the contrasts which Beethoven builds in between certain sections of this monumental score, for example the Larghetto of “Qui tollis peccata mundi” after the opening ebullience of the ‘Gloria’, or more significantly still, the threatened warfare of the “Dona nobis pacem” section of the ‘Agnus Dei’. There is also missing something of a sense of narrative urgency, as in the somewhat blasé way with the “Et resurrexit” (‘Gloria’), or the lack of anticipation and expectation that can arise from the almost breathless way Beethoven sets even a basic word such as “et” to link sections of this longest part of the Mass.
If, in the last resort, this account does not drag at any time, that is largely due to the crisp articulation Harnoncourt draws from Concentus Musicus Wien and the cut-glass-like precision of the Arnold Schoenberg Choir. Where the textures in other versions might become clogged, here they remain lucid, with the raw timbres of the instruments emphasising the contours of phrases or injecting alacrity into the music, and so highlighting the work’s structure. Even with the pitch as low as A=430Hz, this does not have an unduly darkening effect upon the overall timbre.
Brass and choir astutely observe ben marcato marking on the falling thirds of “Christe” (‘Kyrie’), contrasting with the legato crotchet melismas in that section, and instilling some motion after the wearied-sounding initial ‘Kyrie’ sequence. The clarinet solo in the ‘Gratias agimus tibi’ part of the ‘Gloria’ is delightful, whilst rasping, but not ugly, brass impel the stretto entries at the climax of the “In gloria Dei patris” fugue later on to thrilling effect, crowning the finely integrated layers of counterpoint from the choir. However, the equivalent fugue in the ‘Credo’ on “Et vitam venturi” could have been driven by greater momentum, by the same rhythmic alertness the choir demonstrates in the triple-time sections of the ‘Gloria’, particularly in a quieter lilting moment such as “Et in terra pax hominibus”.
The vocal soloists form a cohesive group, sounding more like a semi-chorus. Laura Aikin’s soprano often sounds vulnerable and innocent, as does Johannes Chum’s account of the tenor part with its high, lyrical lines. Ruben Drole sounds surprisingly relaxed in the solo at the beginning of the ‘Agnus Dei’, though Bernarda Fink’s alto brings a more imploring vibrato to the prayer for mercy and peace in that movement. The soloists come together in the “Benedictus” (‘Sanctus’) to sound like an operatic ensemble in the intimacy expressed, rather than evoking a mystical rapture as the divine presence is called down to earth. The solo violinist (presumably Erich Höbarth) produces a sweet-toned vulnerability and grace, however, to symbolise the descent of the Holy Ghost. Throughout the performance, soloists and choir adopt the modern pronunciation of Church Latin, enunciating “Cree-do”, or “Agnus” with a hard ‘g’, which may grate on ears used to the more traditional manner.
The recording stems from Harnoncourt’s final concerts, given at the 2015 Styriarte Festival in Graz (with a further Missa at the Salzburg Festival) and, having retired from conducting shortly afterwards, he directed that this should be his last recording to be released. The liner notes discuss the prolonged process of his coming to terms with this formidable work, the Missa solemnis – a challenge which confronts musicians and listeners alike in tackling the questions of faith and belief which it addresses so, in a sense, there is nothing very remarkable about that in itself.
But this recording stands witness to Harnoncourt’s long and influential career, in which his engagement with a considerable range of repertoire was rarely less than interesting and imaginative. As with many of his recordings, this Missa solemnis sounds more like an interpretation to provoke further thought about it, rather than offering a definitive account, though any view of such a work is likely to remain, at best, provisional.