Beethoven Missa Solemnis

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COMPOSERS: Ludwig van Beethoven
ALBUM TITLE: Beethoven Missa Solemnis
WORKS: Missa Solemnis, Op. 123
PERFORMER: Marlis Petersen (soprano), Gerhild Romberger (mezzo-soprano), Benjamin Hulett (tenor), David Wilson-Johnson (baritone); Collegium Vocale Gent; Orchestre des Champs-Elysées/Philippe Herreweghe


Beethoven’s fierce Missa Solemnis always comes as a shock. How can a work, apparently of a devotional nature, be so aggressive? More so than any other of Beethoven’s works, which is saying a lot. Words, which when set by any other composer sound jubilant or ecstatic in praise, sound desperate or furious when Beethoven tackles them. Think of the yelled ‘Gloria!’ at the end of that section; the orchestra has stopped but the chorus insists on a final cry – would one know it was sung in praise, as one certainly does with JS Bach?

It’s no good trying to mollify the Missa, and the near-successful performances – I’m not sure there are any really successful ones – avoid that trap. Even more than in his first recording of the work 20 years ago, Philippe Herreweghe is suitably implacable here, even if that makes for an uncomfortable listening experience. Even the one sustained passage of comparative peacefulness, the Benedictus, has its huge violin solo played without vibrato, and the soloists, competent but unobtrusive, offer little of the warmth and expressiveness that we usually get here. They sound more at home in the Agnus Dei, pleading vehemently for a peace that Beethoven refuses until the very last bars of the whole work, where he characteristically uses the timpani as ‘a sign of peace,’ as he  wrote in a late sketch.

With a smallish orchestra, period practices and a tight grip on tempos, this is one of the least relenting performances I have heard. It may well approximate what Beethoven wanted, but it does mean, as far as I’m concerned, that one is more aware of striving singers doing their best with Beethoven’s impossible demands than of the spiritual efforts and exhaustions that so obsessed him.


Michael Tanner