Beethoven: Missa Solemnis

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COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: Soli Deo Gloria
ALBUM TITLE: Beethoven: Missa Solemnis
WORKS: Missa Solemnis
PERFORMER: Lucy Crowe (soprano); Jennifer Johnson (mezzo-soprano); James Gilchrist (tenor); Matthew Rose (bass); Monteverdi Choir; Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique/John Eliot Gardiner


This is Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s second recording of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis with similar forces. The first was made some 15 years ago, for Archiv, in a church acoustic more appropriate to the work than the somewhat dry Barbican Hall, from which this new ‘live’ version emanates. Yet it’s not difficult to understand why Gardiner wanted this particular performance perpetuated: fine as the Archiv version is, the new one has an electricity of a kind that’s hard to generate under studio conditions. Gardiner takes the composer’s sometimes very fast tempo-markings at face-value, to thrilling effect, conveying a feeling of music on the borderline of unperformability that’s an essential element of so much late Beethoven. Only in the final pages of the ‘Gloria’, where the music accelerates into a headlong presto, does the earlier version have greater excitement resulting from a more decisive increase in pulse.

Both recordings have a strong team of soloists, with the Archiv line-up perhaps having the edge. In the hair-raising moment from the ‘Agnus Dei’ featuring the menacing sounds of war, the Archiv version has the trumpets at first off-stage – not an idea that comes from Beethoven, though it’s undeniably effective. But in neither performance does the mezzo soloist here convey the impression of fear (timidamente is Beethoven’s marking): for that, you need to turn to Janet Baker on Carlo Maria Giulini’s fine EMI recording with the Philharmonia. Of the two Gardiner versions, my allegiance remains with the Archiv, not least in view of the superior sound-quality, but it’s a close call.


Misha Donat