Missa solemnis, Op.123
Anne Ellersiek (soprano), Michaela Wehrum-Gandenberger (mezzo-soprano), Mark Adler (tenor) & Patrick Schramm (bass)
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 4 November, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Words cannot do justice to the greatness of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis, or its (potentially) transporting qualities. There was much to admire in this OAE performance with a very animated Gianandrea Noseda conducting. He had the advantage of the Philharmonia Chorus, astonishing here, its members fearless – sopranos especially unflinching – in meeting Beethoven’s cruel if life-enhancing demands. Chorus-master Stefan Bevier appears to be working considerable wonders; the Handelian Heaven-reaching unisons were thrilling and remarkably unanimous, with quiet passages communally inward. That said, choral personnel were too many in relation to the OAE, despite it being at its largest: the many fortissimos found singers outgunning players, strings particularly usurped. And the chamber organ was simply inaudible; not one note was heard or felt. Solo singers – ideally positioned between orchestra and chorus (this is not a work for ‘stars’) – carried effortlessly, the men the more reliable and characterful.
Noseda’s 71-minute performance – ‘authentic’ in flowing tempos, the opening ‘Kyrie’ (with two different pronunciations) unforced, sometimes solemn, sometimes lilting – didn’t always take wing, for although the ‘Gloria’ was exhilarating at this speed, and commendably disciplined, there was also something relentlessly earthbound about it. For all the light and shade, and dynamic contrasts, the ‘Credo’ also had its hyper side, yet Noseda found deep contemplation in the Palestrina-like episodes, in which Beethoven seems to commune with music even then a couple of centuries old. It was these ‘secret’ sections that held the greatest thrall (although Noseda’s operatic instincts left the altar far behind, too), so such moments as the violin solo in the ‘Benedictus’ were rapt, especially in Matthew Truscott’s silver-toned, delicately traced contribution. However he didn’t need to stand, for the music’s focal points should be its expression and sound, and there is much else, however subtle, from voices and other instruments also being woven at this point.
That were other high-points, the distinctiveness of the winds and brass and their impeccable collegiate balance; the strings too, when they could be properly heard – the violas and cellos made a sovereign contribution, and Charles Fullbrook’s timpani-playing was crisp and rounded, and dramatic when required.
What was less than edifying was some in the audience (few in number admittedly, but enough), those who whisper unengaged with what is before them, shuffle bags and coats, applaud mindlessly when Beethoven’s paeans of praise and depth of utterance requires only reflection, cough loudly, and leave their mobiles on – thus a faint ringing followed Truscott’s last ethereal note, and – the ultimate irony – the choir’s final plea for peace (after some vivid warlike trumpets and drums, “pacem” here pronounced “pasem” rather than the more-usual “pachem”) had its silent aftermath intruded upon in the same way.
So, some airbrushing will be needed when the recording is issued on Signum (as it presumably will be) – continuing the OAE’s new association with the label – although the festoon of microphones hopefully will not dictate much post-production mixing or added reverb, for (the one reservation aside) this was a naturally and beautifully balanced performance, clearly sounded in this particular acoustic, that was alive and profound at every turn, musicians coming together under a vibrant conductor to share one of the most spellbinding of musical creations (whether one is a devout believer or an atheist) – from the heart to the heart and with food for thought.