Beethoven: Missa solemnis

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3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: Arte Nova
WORKS: Missa solemnis
PERFORMER: Luba Orgonasova (soprano), Anna Larsson (mezzo-soprano), Rainer Trost (tenor), Franz-Josef Selig (bass); Swiss Chamber Choir, Zürich Tonhalle Orchestra/David Zinman
CATALOGUE NO: 74321 87074 2
For once the statistics are revealing. David Zinman’s Missa solemnis is dispatched in just under 66 minutes; Giulini’s spreads itself comfortably over 82. Of course, if Zinman had had to contend with the cavernous acoustic of St Paul’s Cathedral he would probably have stretched things out longer, otherwise whole sections of the Gloria and Credo would have been incomprehensible. But the manner would still be utterly different. Zinman goes for short, tight phrases with punchy accents; Guilini lets the phrases expand. Zinman’s Beethoven is powered by muscular rhythms, Giulini’s by majestic long melodic lines. Zinman’s orchestral sound is stratified, with strong contrast between instrumental colours (enhanced by quasi-period performing styles); Giulini’s is plush, rounded, richly blended – even the solo flute in the ‘Et incarnatus’ section of the Credo seems to emerge from the body of the orchestra rather than floating free of it, as Zinman’s does.

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But however stimulating it may be to compare them, I’m not sure I’d go out of my way to listen to either of these recordings again. Too often Zinman seems coldly cerebral. John Eliot Gardiner’s wholly period-instrument Missa solemnis may not be ideal, but his Zinman-like approach results in something more exciting, more volatile – the energy isn’t just on the surface. Giulini could hardly be warmer, more reverential than Zinman, but rhythmically this is emasculated Beethoven. And it ’t simply a matter of tempo. Klemperer’s EMI recording is more flawed than Gardiner’s, but at its best it shows that you can have rhythmic tension even when the music carries heavy weights. Nikolaus Harnoncourt just about leads the pack at the moment – a performance not without its eccentricities, but which manages to combine something of Gardiner’s drive with Giulini’s devotion. Stephen Johnson