Missa solemnis

Beethoven
Mass in D, Op.123 (Missa solemnis)

Claudia Barainsky (soprano)
Christianne Stotijn (mezzo-soprano)
Benjamin Hulett (tenor)
Michael Volle (bass)

Collegium Vocale Gent

Orchestre des Champs-Élysées [Alessandro Moccia, violin]
Philippe Herreweghe


Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: 7 May, 2005
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

I have to confess that my attitude to period performance and authentic instruments – separate but related topics – is totally inconsistent in that while I much prefer to hear, say, Handel and Gluck played on original instruments, I prefer Bach’s music for solo instruments to be played on modern ones. With regard to Beethoven, and especially middle- and late-period Beethoven, I prefer a full-size, modern symphony orchestra with, when needed, a big chorus. Nevertheless, Herreweghe’s recording of Missa Solemnis – the greatest of all choral works – was very well received in some quarters so I was hoping to be pleasantly surprised and challenged.

The opening of the ‘Kyrie’ was spoilt by split chords as well as suspect string intonation. Herreweghe’s beat became metronomic by exaggerating the first beat of each bar and he also failed to mould phrases by allowing them to rise and fall. In the ‘Gloria’ the tempo was reasonably fast but far too controlled and there was no real conviction or exultation. Nor was there sufficient dynamic variation; the brass wasn’t allowed to cut through the textures and here the small chorus was a big disadvantage, the cries of ‘Gloria’ in the coda should be elemental and pin you back in your seat, which the choir of 46 did not. Much the same could be said of the ‘Credo’ – with the added problem that in the central section the tension was allowed to slip and the return of the first theme was plodding. Throughout, the soloists often came perilously close to sounding twee, while individually the bass and soprano were under-powered, the mezzo was very fruity and the tenor clean but inexpressive; so, this quartet failed to cohere tonally.

Originally, many people were outraged by the ‘Sanctus’ and ‘Benedictus’ contains perhaps the most beautiful music ever written for the solo violin, and such an expressive device apparently has no place in a Mass. But I rather doubt if anyone would be offended by Herreweghe’s performance, which was ineffectual. The opening was too loud, and too fast to be an adagio, the ensuing Allegro pesante was weak, the central section too fast smooth and loud, and in the ‘Benedictus’ the violin solo completely lacked spirituality and grace: the desire to avoid romanticism robbed the music of its emotional core.

Most basses must dread the ‘Agnus Dei’ – like the ‘Mors stupebit’ in Verdi’s Requiem it is very difficult to sing in tune – and although Michael Volle’s intonation was there or thereabouts, his tone lacked weight and projection and the voice wobbled seriously. In the following trio the soloists’ expression was syrupy and totally at odds with the text. In the ensuing fugato, trumpets and drums (of war) twice interrupt the music’s ecstatic flow. On both occasions these passages where underplayed; it seems pointless not to advantage of lean orchestral textures and not let the brass cut through. The second such outburst should be terrifying, but here, as with so much else in this performance, it passed by devoid of conviction and emotion, and had me thinking of Toscanini’s 1939 performance and its blazing intensity and luminosity.

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