Beethoven Missa solemnis
Ann-Helen Moen (soprano), Roxana Constantinescu (mezzo-soprano), James Gilchrist (tenor), Benjamin Bevan (baritone), Ryo Terakado (violin); Bach Collegium Japan/Masaaki Suzuki
BIS BIS-2321 (hybrid CD/SACD) 74:07 mins
The Missa solemnis, composed by Beethoven from 1819 to 1823, was the work which cost him even more labour than any of his other recalcitrant masterpieces – and it can’t be said that the finished work doesn’t show it. It may have cost an enormous effort to compose, but it does also make for uniquely strenuous listening. Beethoven is not celebrating either God or his own belief in God; rather he is trying – this is how it sounds – to persuade himself to believe in Him, and it isn’t clear that he succeeds. The obvious contrast is with Bach’s Mass in B minor, the most exalted music there is. Performances and recordings of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis either render its difficulties as intensely as possible, or they do something to soften the efforts, by for instance having extraordinarily lovely soloists, as Herbert von Karajan did in his many recordings. Masaaki Suzuki is with the other camp, most impressively represented by Otto Klemperer, where the listener is recruited to join the slog up the mountain, with no promise of reaching the summit. The orchestra and chorus are comparatively small under Suzuki, the tempos slightly on the fast side, the soloists able to cope with the appalling difficulties of their music, but not outstandingly beautiful. The noises of battle and the pleas for peace in the final section are desperate, with less sense of final repose than in some other versions, including Giulini’s. I suspect that Beethoven would have approved of Suzuki’s intransigence, so like his own, but whatever is the polar opposite of easy listening, this is it.