LSO/Colin Davis in New York – Beethoven’s Missa solemnis

Missa solemnis, Op.123

Helena Juntunen (soprano), Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano), Paul Groves (tenor) & Matthew Rose (bass)

London Symphony Chorus

London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis

Reviewed by: Lewis M. Smoley

Reviewed: 21 October, 2011
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York

Sir Colin Davis. Photograph: Alberto Venzago / LSOIn the spring of 1818, Beethoven decided to write a work to commemorate the installation of Archduke Rudolf of Austria (his pupil) as Archbishop of Olmütz. For more than ten years he agonized over his harsh treatment as guardian of nephew Karl, to such an extent that it caused a creative block. In spite of his resolve regarding the new work, he struggled to complete it on time, missing the investiture by three years. Nevertheless, his tireless efforts to succeed despite serious emotional strain resulted in a brilliantly conceived and masterfully written liturgical composition. Although Beethoven looked to the past for inspiration (particularly in the music of Palestrina, Bach, Handel and Haydn), Missa solemnis is a very personal and highly inventive work while utilizing classical and baroque techniques in a most individual manner.

What is particularly intriguing about Missa solemnis is how it contrasts moments of great power with hushed choral passages that express deep humility. The former can move toward fulfillment only to give out before reaching a climax, almost as if cowed in the face of the Divine Creator. Although Beethoven was not a regular churchgoer, he had a profound and sincere religious sensibility and a very personal relationship with his Maker of which there is much appended evidence in the score – (from the German), “with devotion”, “From the heart may it go to the Heart”, and “Please accept this prayer for inner and outer peace”.

Sir Colin Davis has long been an advocate of this monumental work. On this occasion, it was obvious that all concerned would give everything they had to make the evening one to remember. Davis professes an approach to conducting that allows players some freedom of expression. This may be laudable, but it can result in some confusion, as occurred at once in the tentative entrance of the LSO on the powerful opening chords. But the musicians came together immediately thereafter and performed admirably, a few other imprecise entrances in the woodwinds and brass and some quickly adjusted intonation problems notwithstanding. The strings were vibrant and precise, making the polyphony of the many fugato passages crystal-clear. Brass enriched powerful orchestral passages and played the military tattoos that add a new dimension to the closing moments of the concluding ‘Angus Dei’. The vocal soloists were impressive and well-matched. Helena Juntunen’s deeply emotive expressivity balanced nicely with Sarah Connolly’s more-reserved yet more vocally secure presentation Matthew Rose opened the ‘Agnus Dei’ with an impressive prayer for forgiveness and mercy. Only Paul Groves seemed less than unswerving, but almost like a ventriloquist he produced sufficient power to be heard even though he hardly opened his mouth to do so.

Colin Davis’s masterful reading notwithstanding, it was the London Symphony Chorus that was largely responsible for the performance’s success. From their fervent cries of “Kyrie”, it became apparent that all the choristers were committed to give their utmost. They sang with precision and clarity with a touch of mystery in the soft passages, and truly awesome power in fortissimo outbursts, sometimes made even more compelling by forceful accents strongly urged on by the conductor. The contrast between thrusting choral eruptions and suddenly whispered sentiments during the ‘Kyrie’ (and elsewhere) established a dualism between Divine and human images. Davis began the ‘Gloria’ in a vigorous tempo that lent resilience to its ascending theme. After a brief respite, the soloists began a comforting prayer only to be shouted down by the chorus on a two-bar phrase that anticipates the ‘Credo’ theme. Later, Davis set a rock-solid if reserved tempo for the fugue that became more energetic after the trombones’ entrance. The shouts of “Amen” that jockey back and forth between piano and forte and conclude with outbursts of “Gloria” were simply overwhelming.

The LSC was also a tower of strength in the opening of the ‘Credo’. This movement (the most extensive of the five) can lose focus in its quiet passages, but was here imbued with virtually hypnotic power during the subdued Adagio section (the flute’s flittering filigree sounding like a bird of paradise). It is amazing how Davis’s foursquare tempo retained underlying tension. Gordan Nikolitch adorned the brief ‘Sanctus’ that follows with exquisitely played violin solos. Beginning with the vocal quartet’s blissful prayer, the ‘Sanctus’ closed mysteriously with shuddering strings. A solemn orchestral interlude leads to the ‘Benedictus’ sung principally by the vocal quartet. During the gradual build-up that forms virtually the first half of the ‘Agnus Dei’, one sensed that the frequent contrasts of soft and loud phrases impel the music toward a climax, which even forceful cries of “pacem” (peace) does not engender. Instead, a military march briefly intervenes. Could this unexpected allusion to war have been Beethoven’s expression of his anti-war stance? During the closing section Beethoven brilliantly transforms the ‘Credo’ motif into a quotation from Handel’s Messiah (“And He shall reign for ever and ever”). Unexpectedly and ultimately Beethoven does not try to overwhelm during the closing moments. Instead, he offers a quiet prayer for peace. How movingly the performers expressed Beethoven’s plea.

This was one of the most moving performances of this magnificent work in recent memory, the strongest applause reserved for one of the finest conductors of our time, Colin Davis.

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