Philharmonia/Norrington Missa Solemnis – 6 March

Mass in D (Missa solemnis), Op.123

Amanda Halgrimson (soprano)
Cornelia Kallisch (mezzo-soprano)
Peter Bronder (tenor)
Alfred Reiter (bass)

Philharmonia Chorus
Philharmonia Orchestra
Sir Roger Norrington

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 6 March, 2003
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Wolfgang Sawallisch who has been unable to conduct the Philharmonia Orchestra’s Beethoven Cycle was, sadly, indisposed again for this final concert. His replacement, Sir Roger Norrington, led a performance that must surely have been poles apart from the kind of reading Sawallisch would have given.Let me be clear straight away that this was a performance of utter conviction and technical security. The fact that it was wrong-footed and, to these ears, a travesty of Beethoven’s score must, of necessity, be a matter of personal opinion. Possibly even a lone opinion, as the performance was greeted with loud acclaim and enthusiasm.

But I feel intense unease when clear instructions in the score are ignored – such as tempo markings – and when, as in this instance, the spirit of the music is undermined. After all, this is a religious work, but there was very little that was devotional in this performance. A clear example would be the Sanctus, which is explicitly marked by Beethoven ’Mit andacht’ – with devotion – not in this reading, where the music was hustled along in direct contradiction to this instruction and, moreover, the given tempo indication of ’Adagio’. It was Norrington’s overall approach to tempo that I found most troublesome, with some perverse choices where faster speeds were deliberately slower and vice versa. Perhaps there was some erudite reason for this, but as it went against the grain of the music, I remain unconvinced.

And if we are talking about so-called ’authenticity’, what justified the absence of the organ in this performance? Beethoven wrote an important organ part, which buttresses many of the climaxes. Its omission was inexcusable. Then there is the question of the strings, with Norrington’s preference for vibrato-less tone. By co-incidence, I heard the conductor on the Today programme expounding his views that the absence of vibrato makes the music more expressive. I beg to differ since, on this occasion, the strings of the Philharmonia, dutifully executing Norrington’s requests, sounded thin and insubstantial. But the orchestra as a whole played wonderfully, the singers likewise responding wholeheartedly.

A plain and rugged opening to the Kyrie ignored Beethoven’s ’with devotion’ marking as well, and some initial flat choral singing was not encouraging, but this soon improved and the chorus overall was steadfast in its singing throughout, fearsome demands being met with ease. Admirable from the start was the distinguished quartet of soloists. Placed at the back of the orchestra there was an excellent sense of integration between them and the chorus. Amanda Halgrimson, standing in for an indisposed Melanie Diener, made an operatic contribution, if rather tremulous at times. Cornelia Kallisch’s tone was warm and rich, even if her diction was at times a little cloudy. Peter Bronder was firm and vivid in projection, whilst Alfred Reiter was sonorous and comfortable with the very wide tessitura Beethoven demands from his bass soloist.

The Kyrie was rapid, and some important differentiation of dynamics was passed by here and elsewhere. Beethoven’s distinctions between f/ff and p/pp are essential, but were not always observed. The blaze of sound that begins the Gloria was impressive, with splendid timpani playing, but Norrington pulled the orchestra right down for the first choral entry, which was a pity as the chorus could have mustered enough tone to match the accompaniment. Accents and sforzando markings were, inevitably, exaggerated and verged on mannerism in the quiet ’pax hominibus’ passage. The lovely ’gratias’ for solo quartet was blessed with sensitive solos from clarinet and bassoon, but the sudden fff (a very rare marking in Beethoven) at ’omnipotens’ was not as effective as it should have been, the previous forte passages having been too loud.In the ’miserere’, one noted some details of scoring which sometimes pass one by, particularly Beethoven’s string figuration, but when the fugal ’in gloria dei patris’ was launched, it was done so in a decidedly plodding fashion, and the return of the opening music at the end, marked ’presto’, was actually slower than on its in initial ’allegro vivace’ presentation. In the final bar, in what I hope was a moment of aberration (though I rather doubt it), Norrington turned and grinned at the audience, eliciting chuckles in response. I question that Beethoven intended this as a reaction to what should be an ecstatic conclusion to a remarkable movement.

Leonard Bernstein wrote very perceptively about the importance of relating the tempi between the various sections of the Credo. Norrington chose another course, which favoured no such relationship, thus breaking up this long movement into smaller self-contained units which prevented any sense of organic flow or even connection between them. The opening had a strong, purposeful stride and the various strands of the choral and orchestral writing were clearly presented, but an air of mystery was totally absent from the adagio ’et incarnatus est’, with the various choral mutterings much too loud. In fact, much of the time, this performance seemed to pay no regard to the intent of the text, which Beethoven had so masterfully depicted in his writing. The Allegro molto of ’et ascendit’, for once felt like an appropriate speed, and this portion of the movement was convincingly projected. In the double fugue of ’et vitam venturi’ we were once again in the minefield of mannerism with the choral phrases broken up, thus destroying the sense of the words. The orchestral parts are marked staccato, the chorus is not. The ’allegro con moto’ which followed was ludicrously fast, orchestra and chorus just about managing to deliver. The explosive thwacks from the timpani were mightily impressive, but for whatever reason, one of them was delivered as a glorious solo, quite unintended by the composer. The aura of quiet serenity, which should conclude this movement, was discarded in favour of a much more earthbound approach.

Similarly, the celestial Sanctus remained decidedly terrestrial, for reasons already cited, although the explosive ’pleni sunt coeli’ was effectively celebratory. The style of playing made the prelude to the Benedictus sound even more strange, harmonically speaking, than normal. This was an oddly affecting – and effective – moment, but the subsequent violin solo, often stratospherically high was, pace Norrington, totally devoid of expressiveness as a direct result of the avoidance of vibrato and instead seemed effortful, though this was no fault of James Clark’s execution of the part. There were some ’swellings’ of the brass phrases, which are marked pianissimo, which didn’t seem to be serving any discernible purpose.

In the final Agnus Dei, contrasts between the sections were not as apparent as they might have been and the one moment I thought might have been effective, given Norrington’s approach, namely the trumpet and drum incursion towards the end, was strangely muted, and the desperate cries for peace were not as anguished as they ought be.

A very full audience was seemingly convinced by Norrington’s approach to this great work. I was not, given its blatant disregard for what is in the score – strange, because following the letter of the score is, supposedly, what Norrington and his fellow authenticists set out to do. Instead I found it disturbing and troubling to hear a score presented in way which, ultimately, failed to serve the composer’s vision and intention.

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