Ludwig van Beethoven: Missa Solemnis

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Ludwig van Beethoven
ALBUM TITLE: Beethoven: Missa Solemnis
WORKS: Missa Solemnis
PERFORMER: Anne Schwanewilms, Annette Jahns, Nikolai Schukoff, Dietrich Henschel; LPO & Chorus/Christoph Eschenbach

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This may not be the finest performance of Beethoven’s most forbidding work on disc,
but it certainly ranks with the best. It is less austere than Otto Klemperer, less rich than Herbert von Karajan, certainly less overtly devotional than Carlo Maria Giulini, and less period-practice conscious than Philippe Herreweghe, John Eliot Gardiner, and many others. But, on this recording, Christoph Eschenbach is his own man. In his hands, the work is more questioning than devout, though it has passages of unbridled jubilation, including the end of the Gloria, which is among the most extraordinary passages that Beethoven wrote.

The London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir are on top form; that sopranos show the strain in several passages only adds to the overall effect. And the soloists – not all familiar names – make a great team. Dietrich Henschel reveals a bigger and richer bass than I had ever imagined he possessed. It’s used to impassioned effect in the Agnus Dei, where Beethoven evokes the terrors of war with surprising clarity. To say that Eschenbach produces a balanced view of the Missa Solemnis suggests a degree of compromise or moderation which isn’t the case, and which would be violently out of place in this extreme work. On the other hand, this isn’t one of those accounts that leaves you suffering from aural fatigue and nervous exhaustion. Those that do – and there are many – defeat this work’s aim to challenge its listeners to find what their feelings about Christian teachings really are. Beethoven, it seems, believed that there must be some greater force in the universe, but was unable to subscribe to any set formulae as to what that force might be. His mass, as performed here, leaves us in much the same position.

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Michael Tanner