Missa solemnis

Mass in D, Op.123 (Missa solemnis)

Soile Isokoski (soprano)
Sara Mingardo (contralto)
Pavol Breslik (tenor)
Alastair Miles (bass)

London Symphony Chorus

London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 19 February, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Beethoven’s “Missa solemnis” has always occupied an equivocal position in his overall output: a sacred counterpart to the fervent humanism of the Ninth Symphony or an essentially secular treatment of the Mass which seeks but ultimately does not find fulfilment in the concept of the hereafter?

Both of these qualities, among others, are present in a work whose diversity of meaning is the likely key to its greatness, and most probably the reason why the composer laboured at it so intensively and over a longer period (1818-23) than any other. Sir Colin Davis has been its loyal advocate for the greater part of his career, and this performance left no doubt as to his profound appreciation of a piece of which he would appear to agree with Beethoven in considering his greatest achievement.

From the onset of the “Kyrie”, this was clearly going to be a spacious and unhurried reading – which, at 87 minutes (20 minutes more than the swiftest recorded version), it so proved. Yet there was nothing at all sluggish about Davis’s approach, the heartfelt supplication of its central ‘Christe eleison’ emerging in telling distinction to the serenity either side. By the same token, the symphonically conceived expressive contrasts of the “Gloria” and “Credo” were powerfully integrated such that an ongoing momentum was made inevitable. Moreover, the former’s relative extremes of elation and despair found a natural corollary in the latter’s granitic alternation between acceptance and uncertainty in the face of its diverse tenets. Thus the intense hush at ‘Qui tollis peccata mundi’ and the stark austerity at ‘Crucifixus etiam pro nobis’ found an affirmative outcome in the striding fugues that bring these movements to their conclusion – both rendered here with an unflagging drive.

The “Sanctus”, mystical and triumphal by turns, is remarkable in its brevity compared to the setting of the “Benedictus” that precedes it. Beethoven’s most radical and thus controversial departure from tradition, its recourse to a concertante violin as the fifth solo voice in a rapt setting of the text can be seen as either indulgent or inspired – though, as Stephanie Gonley’s melding with the human voices was judged to a nicety, only the latter response seemed possible on this occasion. Nor was the bleak introduction to the “Agnus Dei” played down; the sombreness of its initial portion giving way to a ‘Dona Nobis Pacem’ in which the forces of calm and aggression become locked in a confrontation that does not so much conclude as cease – all the while with the implication that an attainment of the divine future is in the hands, after all, of the earthly present. A direct provocation, perhaps, but could so questing and humanly all-encompassing a composer as Beethoven have envisaged it any other way?

The soloists for this performance were generally excellent as individual singers and finely blended in ensemble – neither to be taken for granted in such technically demanding vocal music. Pavol Breslik’s demonstrative tenor occasionally inclined too far towards the operatic, but there was no doubting his commitment, while Soile Isokoski’s flawless intonation and Sara Mingardo’s unmistakable timbre were impressively in evidence. A late replacement, Alastair Miles offered further reminder of his current high standing among basses – his contribution drawing attention to itself only in so far as it underlined the sincerity and conviction of Beethoven’s writing. The LSO Chorus was responsive to the music in all its blazing energy and inward vulnerability – a tribute to the expertise of Joseph Cullen – while the London Symphony Orchestra exhibited a burnished refinement appropriate for this work of Beethoven more than any other (and with the texture-thickening organ part discreetly touched in).

Yet this remained Davis’s performance, in the way that his conception unfolded with such unforced yet deep underlying conviction. If an acute sense of equivocation at the heart of the “Missa solemnis” remains, then this is surely because it cannot be otherwise: something that Davis realises and which he conveys with unstinting rightness. Coming up to nearly 200 years after its completion, we are seemingly no nearer to answering the challenge to humanity that it poses: nor, perhaps, can we ever hope to be.

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