Mass in D, Op.123 (Missa solemnis)
Lynne Dawson (soprano)
Anna Larsson (contralto)
Thomas Studebaker (tenor)
Franz-Josef Selig (bass)
London Philharmonic Choir
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Timothy Ball
Reviewed: 16 May, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London
Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis is a work of extremes. Not only in tempo and moods of expression – from rapt prayer through to almost wild exultation – but also in the demands it makes upon its performers. This performance under Kurt Masur’s direction failed to scale the heights of Beethoven’s vision. It was often very fast and its direct approach left very little time – or inclination – for more inward feelings. It was certainly bracing at times, but Beethoven often uses the unusual direction “mit Andacht” – with devotion – which surely implies something other than mere propulsion. This devotional quality was notable for its absence on this occasion.
Right from the start, Masur elicited a rather soft-grained attack from the orchestra, and so the punctuating chords in the ‘Kyrie’ lacked bite and a call to attention. The timpani were timid rather than commanding; indeed the general articulation of the ensemble was flaccid. In the ‘Gloria’ and ‘Credo’ Masur steered his forces through the potential pitfalls of the frequent changes of gear, but with the basic pulse unremittingly fast, the requisite contrasts were not forthcoming. The “et homo factus est”, for example, though marked Andante, was unceremoniously hustled along, thus nullifying the intention of this reflective passage. In fact, whilst I am by no means a clock watcher, the whole performance, including some protracted pauses between movements, was over in just 70 minutes. Karajan, live in Salzburg in 1959, takes over 81 minutes but does feel slow by any means. (Colin Davis took 90 a few years ago: Ed.)
The prelude to the ‘Benedictus’ should again be a moment of repose, but Masur ploughed on and encouraged some inappropriately swooning – and loud – string playing. When it came to the ‘Benedictus’ itself, the performance was severely compromised by precariousness on the part of soprano Lynne Dawson, who omitted phrases, shirked top notes (in a couple of instances, singing high-lying passages down an octave) and made wrong entries. Whilst one should be indulgent, given her late substitution for an indisposed Janice Watson, it was uncomfortably evident that Dawson was uncertain in the part, in spite of supportive coaxing from the podium. There were similar problems in the ‘Agnus Dei’ and, throughout, she did not evince the security that is a pre-requisite in this taxing music. This deficiency affected the soloists’ ensemble, though the remaining singers did their best. After some initial reticence Anna Larsson delivered some memorable phrases, Thomas Studebaker was reliable, and Franz-Josef Selig was effective in the lower reaches of the wide-ranging tessitura of the bass part. The higher range in the ‘Agnus Dei’ was not so comfortable for him.
One could not fault the London Philharmonic Choir’s enthusiasm. Its members had clearly been well prepared, and the sopranos in particular deserve plaudits for their stamina in the stratospheric heights demanded by Beethoven. But, overall, the chorus lacked sheer weight. There were some thin-sounding tenor entries.
The LPO played extremely well, with some especially effective and carefully moulded phrasing from the strings. The principal woodwinds were very fine – the solos from flute and clarinet were most expressively delivered. But the performance as a whole was not a convincing one, and remained stubbornly earthbound even in its most exulted moments, of which there are not a few in this most transcendental of Mass settings.