Prom 69 Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis

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

Lucy Crowe (soprano), Ann Hallenberg (mezzo-soprano), Giovanni Sala (tenor) & William Thomas (bass)

Monteverdi Choir

Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique
Sir John Eliot Gardiner


Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 7 September, 2022
Venue: Albert Hall, London

This performance of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis was originally part of the season’s last-week line-up of serious music-making with visiting orchestras before the Last Night of the Proms’ fun and games. By accident – or perhaps by cosmic design – it turned out to be a Last Night of a very different order and significance. After the announcement of the death of Queen Elizabeth II just an hour before the start of Thursday’s Prom, the Philadelphia Orchestra only played the UK National Anthem and Elgar’s Nimrod. Its second concert and the Last Night were cancelled.

So, no ‘Land of Hope of Glory’. Except that retrospectively there was. Beethoven’s Missa solemnis is about nothing other than the realm of hope and glory, with Beethoven straining to put his faith in humanity on an equal footing with the might of Christian orthodoxy, with both mutually nourished. This was something that Sir John Eliot understands with uncanny clarity, his finger on the pulse of the work’s grandeur, drama and intimacy, with the ORR, the forty-four-strong Monteverdi Choir and the four soloists negotiating details of tempo, scoring and expression with chamber-like ease; woodwind laying down colour over the strings, the brass crowning the big moments with electrifying results, the timpanist setting off volleys of rock-like rhythm; the Monteverdi Choir was at its most expansive, singing the Latin text as if it was its first language. This was the Missa solemnis at its mystical, visceral best.

Gardiner’s rhythmic bite in the ‘Gloria’ was one thing, but in the quieter moments the orchestra spaced harmony and colour with a unique, period vibrancy, and the moment at the end when the music goes into hyper-drive, the final, exposed choral shout of “Gloria” was sensational. Gardiner set quite a pace for the ‘Credo’, avoiding a familiar monumentalism and paying big dividends in the “Et incarnatus” section, the meeting of human and divine, ushered in with a Janáček-like rapture by Giovanni Sala. That was compounded later by the “Benedictus” section of the ‘Sanctus’, when Peter Hanson’s violin solo prepared the ground for the miracle of transubstantiation in playing of subliminal grace, guiding us into the work’s inner sanctum, then handing over to the four soloists led by Ann Hallenberg and William Thomas’s hushed and lovely singing. The soloists were placed in front of the chorus, behind the orchestra, plainly making the case that they are an extension of the choir, even if Lucy Crowe’s lovely soprano proposed operatic potential.

For judgement, intensity and bravura, this Missa solemnis was a triumph.

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