Proms 2011 – Sir Colin Davis conducts Beethoven’s Missa solemnis

Missa solemnis, Op.123

Helena Juntunen (soprano), Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano), Paul Groves (tenor) & Matthew Rose (bass)

London Philharmonic Choir & London Symphony Chorus

London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 4 September, 2011
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Sir Colin Davis conducts Beethoven's Missa Solemnis at the BBC Proms 2011. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouSir Colin Davis may need to sit these days, but there was not a hint of frailty in this performance of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis, nor in his vision of a work ranging from Catholic triumphalism to a melting subjectivity that would not sound out of place in Fidelio. He took quite a risk though with some very steady tempos in the ‘Gloria’ and ‘Credo’ – directions such as ma non troppo, maestoso and pesante were very much taken to heart and robbed the delirious Presto change of gear in the concluding paean of the ‘Gloria’ of its impact.

Yet Davis’s monumental approach in the opening movements, where Beethoven sometimes seems to be telling God what’s what, was of all of a piece with delivering the work to its open-ended and entirely human conclusion in the ‘Agnus Dei’. Many performances make the change of tack from public grandeur to private contemplation so abrupt as to be almost schizophrenic; Davis allowed it to steal in with a memorably rapt “Et incarnatus” section in the ‘Credo’. It became steadily more of a presence through the ‘Sanctus’ and ‘Benedictus’ and made the sense of resignation at the return to human cares and reality in the ‘Agnus Dei’ all the more plausible, as though everything that had gone before was beyond reach. Davis has the knack in large-scale works of carrying through one big interpretative idea to a logical conclusion, and he made it work powerfully here.

Helena Juntunen, Sarah Connolly, Paul Groves & Matthew Rose sing at the BBC Proms 2011 in Beethoven's Missa Solemnis. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouThe London Symphony Orchestra responded to its former Principal Conductor and current President with a layered, refined sound, properly Classical yet full of Romantic possibility, generously fulfilled in Gordan Nikolitch’s glorious playing of the violin solo in the ‘Benedictus’. The combined choruses were superb, singing with an airy spaciousness and scant regard for Beethoven’s punishing vocal demands, and with great attention to the Latin text (rather undermining Davis‘s lament in the printed programme that Latin has become an unknown language for most people). The quartet of soloists, used predominantly with chorus-like anonymity, had few chances to shine, but Paul Groves was thrilling in the outburst in “Et homo factus est”, and Matthew Rose, always impressively musical, skilfully inflected the change of mood in the ‘Agnus Dei’. Sarah Connolly created the stillness so vital for the start of the ‘Benedictus’, and Helena Juntunen (replacing Carmen Giannattasio) gave a gleam to the ensemble.

It’s true that what Messiaen refers to as “transports de joie” were measured out rather carefully by Davis, but the spiritual complexity of Beethoven’s vision – and the Missa solemnis is a very tough nut to crack – was well served.

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