Cleveland Orchestra Missa Solemnis

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

Emily Magee (soprano)
Yvonne Naef (mezzo-soprano)
Toby Spence (tenor)
Michael Volle (baritone)

The Cleveland Orchestra Chorus

The Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst


Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: 31 August, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Since the days of George Szell, the Cleveland Orchestra has been one of the world’s greatest. Its sound combines warmth and refinement with rich concentrated string tone, transparent brass and slightly plaintive woodwinds – the most European of American orchestras.

The Cleveland Orchestra Chorus also combines refinement and richness, and therein lay the first of many problems with this performance of the greatest of all choral works: the orchestra and chorus sounded too lush and undefined. At the start of the ‘Kyrie’, Welser-Möst allowed the woodwinds to play very smoothly, the string phrases lacked shape and the chorus sounded plush and bland; an stream of undifferentiated timbre, even pleading repetitions were uniformly even. As the ‘Gloria’ commenced both the chorus and orchestra needed far more attack, the rhythms needed more pointing, and rather more than being slack and mundane; sforzando and staccato are not words that feature in Welser-Möst’s vocabulary.

There were also problems with the use of dynamics; the chorus in the stunning coda to the ‘Gloria’ lacked power and volume – and this was typical. The orchestra’s range was also limited; it was very disappointing to not hear until the ‘Agnus Dei’ the brass and woodwinds cut through the textures. If Welser-Möst had used greater dynamic and rhythmic variation then maybe some of the performance’s dullness would have been alleviated. With regard to tempos, Welser-Möst took an episodic view. In each of the five movements the opening speeds were thoughtful, but in the ‘Gloria’ and ‘Credo’ (here “creedo”, and not the only aberration of pronunciation), every one of the tempo changes came as a jolt rather than through evolution and growth, which robbed the music of tension and the sense of flow and implacable musical logic that is such a vital part of ‘late’ Beethoven.

Of the soloists the tenor and baritone were eleventh-hour replacements and Lady Bracknell’s comments on carelessness came to mind. Regrettably Toby Spence was too light voiced and Michael Volle (a baritone rather than a bass) had no weight or penetration. The women were better – Magee had purity of tone and Naef some incision – but none of the soloists made much of the words. In the ‘Benedictus’ the orchestra’s leader William Preucil’s tone was sweet but there was no phrasing or dynamic range and at points he was swamped by the soloists.

What really let this performance down was its complete lack of spirituality. The word is very difficult to define, but you know when you have experienced it and here it wasn’t even on the distant horizon. A great orchestra still looking for a great conductor, a worthy successor to Szell; on the evidence of this concert and the preceding night’s Mahler 3, Welser-Möst is not that man.



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