Beethoven: Missa Solemnis

COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: Solo Deo Gloria
ALBUM TITLE: Beethoven
WORKS: Missa Solemnis
PERFORMER: Tamara Wilson (soprano), Elizabeth DeShong (alto), Nikolai Schukoff (tenor), Brindley Sherratt (bass); Chamber Orchestra of Europe; Gulbenkian Choir/John Nelson
CATALOGUE NO: Soli Deo Gloria 307 9358 (NTSC system; dts 5.1; 16:9 picture format)

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For me the Missa Solemnis is Beethoven’s most forbidding and difficult work, the one I am most conscious of not being able to rise to. I suspect that the performances and recordings I have most enjoyed have been slightly mellower than the composer intended.

No one could say that of this recording, made in 2010, and I think the most impressive I have ever heard, though Colin Davis’s at the Proms last year was in this class. The Chamber Orchestra of Europe plays magnificently, never tiring. And the same goes for the chorus, a professional body, all of whose members have other jobs in the day, but meet each evening to sing. They are fearless, as they need to be. They not only cope with Beethoven’s often absurd demands, they seem to exult in them, though they don’t forget to impart that sense of effortfulness which is so large an element in the score. The soloists are placed behind the orchestra, because as John Nelson explains in an exceptionally helpful interview in the extras, they are not in fact soloists but a quartet – though I must mention that the tenor, Nikolai Schukoff, is outstanding.

John Nelson, of whom we in the UK see and hear very little, clearly has the measure, as much as anyone, of this score, and succeeds in conveying the urgency of his view with gestures and expressions that are eloquent and undemonstrative. It seems unlikely that Beethoven’s vision in this work will ever be more completely captured.

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Michael Tanner