Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducts Beethoven’s Missa solemnis at Barbican Hall and receives the Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society

Missa solemnis, Op.123

Marlis Petersen (soprano), Elisabeth Kulman (mezzo-soprano), Werner Güra (tenor) & Gerald Finley (baritone)

Netherlands Radio Choir

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Nikolaus Harnoncourt

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 22 April, 2012
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

For all his eminence over nearly sixty years of music-making, Nikolaus Harnoncourt has appeared relatively seldom in the UK (a Beethoven symphony cycle with the Philharmonia Orchestra and several Proms with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe notwithstanding), so the chance to hear him with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra was not to be missed.

This matinee concert was given over to a piece with which Harnoncourt has enjoyed a lengthy association, though it is worth recalling that his recording of the Missa solemnis excited no mean controversy on its release two decades ago – mainly on account of tempos that were seemingly at odds with this conductor’s status as a trail-blazer of the ‘authentic’ movement. But then, Harnoncourt has never been beholden to any specific ‘school’, and his interpretation of Beethoven’s fundamentally most all-encompassing work underlines its singularity of purpose as keenly as its startling treatment of the text in terms of the instrumental and vocal means deployed.

With violins antiphonally seated, and the remaining strings arrayed left to right in order of ascent, the sound-picture was one of intricacy but also clarity: bringing out the detail of Beethoven’s often densely contrapuntal textures without any risk of these becoming turgid or overwrought. This, in turn, made possible Harnoncourt’s predominantly spacious approach – one, moreover, whose intensity and yet precision of focus offset any hint of the protracted (and to which Sergiu Celibidache’s Munich Philharmonic account of J. S. Bach’s Mass in B minor offers many relevant points of comparison). Moreover, the placing of the vocal quartet immediately in front of the chorus was of especial benefit in its making explicit the relation of the former to the latter as a semi-chorus rather than as soloists per se; not least as much of its writing audibly emerges out of or back into the larger ensemble in an ongoing sequence of echoes and anticipations such as elaborate on the nature of what is being conveyed.

Not that Harnoncourt eschewed rapidity when it mattered – the outer sections of the ‘Gloria’ lacked nothing in effervescence or the “Pleni sunt coeli” of the ‘Sanctus’ in joyousness. Even so, it was the more inward passages that most readily left their mark: the aura of supplication of the “Qui tollis” in the ‘Gloria’, the rapt homophonic interludes which offset the fugal trenchancy throughout much of the ‘Credo’ and the airborne processional that is the “Benedictus” portion of the ‘Sanctus’ (with violin playing of guileless eloquence by Liviu Prunaru); these movements framed by a ‘Kyrie’ which alternated between serenity and searching restraint, and an ‘Agnus Dei’ whose sheer tonal remoteness led seamlessly into the ‘Dona nobis pacem’ with its brazen juxtaposition of calm rumination and martial overtones (timpani played with hard sticks being of considerable benefit here) – the 87-minute whole coming to its close with a gesture poised effortlessly between resignation and defiance.

Hailed both as Beethoven’s greatest triumph and biggest failure, the Missa solemnis has grown conceptually richer and more equivocal across time: a religious work pointedly removed from liturgical considerations, a choral piece which embodies the circumstances of its creation by transcending them entirely, and music that speaks directly to the heart through appealing to the ambiguities of the mind. A work on which there could be no final word, though a performance such as this rendered its import as fully as could reasonably be expected. Were this to be Harnoncourt’s final appearance in the UK, it could not have been more fitting or more memorable.

Straight after, Nikolaus Harnoncourt was presented by John Gilhooly with the Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society – wholly appropriate given that it was initiated 142 years ago to mark the centenary of Beethoven’s birth, and which the conductor duly accepted with a touching combination of pleasure and self-effacement.

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