Beethoven: Missa solemnis

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: Hänssler faszinationmusik
WORKS: Missa solemnis
PERFORMER: Amanda Halgrimson (soprano), Cornelia Kallisch (alto), John Aler (tenor), Alastair Miles (bass); NDR Chorus, SWR Vocal Ensemble, Stuttgart SWR RSO/Roger Norrington
CATALOGUE NO: CD 93.006
The catalogue isn’t short of powerful accounts of Beethoven’s most enigmatic masterpiece: Gardiner, Herreweghe, Harnoncourt, Klemperer, Karajan – very different, but each with something special to offer. Even in company like that, Norrington’s new recording holds up impressively. He has a way of seeing the piece whole which makes the others’ insights seem patchier. And yet Norrington doesn’t try to smooth out the work’s fascinating incongruities. Sometimes we seem to be listening to a true ‘Solemn Mass’; at other times we may wonder if this is really religious music at all, or rather a huge choral symphony – or even titanic chamber music. As for the brass and timpani onslaughts in the Agnus Dei, the soloists’ desperate pleas for peace – this is pure grand opera. Questions may still hang in the air after Beethoven’s surprisingly curt ending, but Norrington left me wanting to go back to the beginning of the disc and start again, not to turn to someone else for enlightenment.

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Technically, too, this performance is outstanding. The combined NDR Chorus and SWR Vocal Ensemble make a virtuoso chorus: alert, beautifully balanced, vibrant and thrillingly precise – even in the most taxing high writing. Much the same could be said about the orchestra, and like the chorus, the musicians seem to have digested Norrington’s ideas thoroughly: the phrasing is immaculate and often very affecting; even the sound of the vibrato-less lower strings in the mysterious, veiled prelude to the Benedictus has depth of tone and focused intensity – it’s in these more inward-looking passages that Norrington scores over Gardiner, perhaps his closest rival (and also available on a single CD). And although the total timing suggests Gardiner-like brisk tempi, playing and singing never sound hurried – the pace invariably feels right. The recording (apparently based on a broadcast concert) could have been a little brighter and more intimate; but I wouldn’t let that put you off. Stephen Johnson