Missa solemnis in D, Op.123
Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op.67
Birgit Nilsson (soprano)
Lisa Tunnel (contralto)
Gösta Bäckelin (tenor)
Sigurd Björling (bass)
Stockholm Philharmonic Chorus
Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra
Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra [Symphony]
Missa solemnis recorded on 10 March 1948 in the Konzerthuset, Stockholm; Symphony recorded on 4 April 1955 by Cologne Radio (Kölner Rundfunk)
Reviewed by: Rob Pennock
Reviewed: March 2007
CD No: MUSIC & ARTS
CD-1188(2) (2 CDs)
Duration: 1 hour 58 minutes
Beethoven’s “Missa solemnis” has fared well on disc. There are great performances by Horenstein, Klemperer, Szell and Toscanini (several) and others that border on greatness.
Erich Kleiber (1890-1956) never made a studio version of the work and as one of the last century’s greatest conductors, this gap in his discography needed filling. There have been pirate LP and CD versions of this performance around for a long time, but the sound, re-mastered by Kit Higginson, on this issue is the best to date.
Stockholm produced a series of notable performances in the decade after the end of the Second World War, when the orchestra and chorus were approaching world class. Their quality has been demonstrated on many pirate discs, and most notably on the orchestra’s own 8-CD set of “Great Recordings from the Archives” .
On this performance of the ‘Missa’ on the Music & Arts discs there is some poor intonation, ensemble lapses and hollow string tone. The chorus is occasionally severely stretched and, like the orchestra, intonation and ensemble are not always immaculate. In the concluding ‘Agnus Dei’, there is a sense of tiredness in both orchestra and chorus. But the overall impression is very positive and there is nothing to seriously mar the performance.
Unfortunately the same cannot be said of the soloists. Gösta Bäcklein is seriously flat and under-powered. Lisa Tunnel also has intonation problems and Sigurd Björling was a bass-baritone and therefore lacks gravitas in the stupendous prayer at the start of the ‘Agnus Dei’, He also fails to provide a bedrock of tone for the quartet. Of course the most famous of the singers is Birgit Nilsson, who was to become one of the great dramatic sopranos. Here she is very fine, with good intonation, a wide dynamic range and, when needed, a sense of rapt spirituality.
Erich Kleiber’s Beethoven was legendary and in every bar there is sense of space, rhythmic subtlety, beautiful phrasing and pacing and that sense of power, inevitability and rightness, which only a great conductor can command. From the opening bars of the ‘Kyrie’ you know that this will be something special. There is a sense of authority, tension and inexorable forward movement. The power in the ‘Gloria’ and ‘Credo’ is tremendous and while he is slightly slower than Toscanini (in 1940) there is the same sense of blazing intensity and vision. In the ‘Sanctus’ the tempo is ideally judged and the violin soloist weaves a beautiful line through this rapt music. The ‘Agnus Dei’ brings a sense of resolution combined with true terror, as the trumpets and drums of war shatter the line. Above all, there is that vital thing in late Beethoven: true spirituality. The whole performance is imbued with it and as the last chords die away, a halo of sound resonates in the mind. This is a wonderful performance, of the greatest of all choral works.
Kleiber’s studio Beethoven Five, with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra, is highly regarded, but as an interpretation this Cologne account is superior. But as with the “Missa solemnis” a word of warning has to be issued about the playing. The orchestra is good without being world-class and there is some rather thin string tone and dubious intonation and ensemble. During the scherzo and at the start of the coda, for example, the woodwinds are all over the place. Yet the performance is majestically commanding. I suppose those addicted to authenticity will worry about the length of the fermatas in the first movement, but the implacable rhythm, fierce chords and crashing timpani and brass push you back in your seat. Much the same can be said of the slow movement, the string lines are sculpted, the winds sing and there is latent power behind every note. Few – if any – conductors have done the scherzo better, the tempo is fast, the lower strings bite, the entire orchestra powers its way through. The finale is more problematic, given the tempo of the scherzo, you expect it to be faster and certainly when the first subject returns, it is slightly faster; the chords are more blazing and defined. But again there is massive conviction and power in every bar; by the end you feel almost assaulted by the interpretation. In a word, it is glorious.
There is an element of sadness in listening to these performances. Kleiber understood Beethoven, and this understanding is transformed into blazing belief and conviction. Something which contemporary conductors simply have no comprehension of; to compare these performances with the ‘authentic’ school – or those conductors who mix ‘modern’ and ‘period’ – is salutary: it makes one realise what has been lost.
The sound is pretty good. There is inevitable pitch instability, a lack of bass in the ‘Missa’ and, in the symphony, the horns sound as though they are in a different acoustic. However, given the importance of these readings, these minor faults shouldn’t stop every music-lover from acquiring this release.