Beethoven • Cherubini
Of the two works on this rather short disc, Beethoven’s Mass in C, Op. 86, is the less interesting. That is odd, because he wrote it in 1807, at the height of his powers, more or less contemporaneously with the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Symphonies and other masterpieces. It was commissioned by Count Esterházy, for whom Haydn had written his last six great Masses, but who described it as ‘unbearable, ridiculous and detestable’. I wouldn’t go that far, but it is a surprisingly uninteresting work, perhaps because Beethoven had no experience of writing a Mass and had a complicated relationship with Christian teachings, which was to be worked out in the great Missa solemnis. This Mass is a compressed piece, at 35 minutes, and clearly much of the Credo meant nothing to him. It begins strikingly with the basses singing unaccompanied, and ends unusually with the opening music recalled, after ‘Dona nobis pacem’. That’s more or less all that’s interesting about it, and it is rarely performed. This recording is an adequate account, but a bit of glamour and inauthenticity would have livened things up.
The other work, one of Cherubini’s ‘symphonic motets’, is far more interesting. Perpetually neglected, Cherubini is an enterprisingly original composer, especially of church music, and this ten-minute work is a good sampler. The conductor Frieder Bernius favours a severe, even austere approach, as if the work is actually being performed during a service, but that does bring out the intensity of the many surprising contrasts.