Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducts Beethoven’s Missa solemnis

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COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: Sony
ALBUM TITLE: Beethoven
WORKS: Missa solemnis
PERFORMER: Laura Aikin (soprano), Bernarda Fink (mezzo), Johannes Chum (tenor), Ruben Drole (bass); Arnold Schoenberg Choir; Concentus Musicus Wien/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
CATALOGUE NO: 88985313592  

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There are moments when Harnoncourt’s Missa solemnis is just wonderful, moments when you genuinely hold your breath at its beautiful audacity. The descent of the Holy Ghost in the Credo, flute fluttering like a fragile dove, the bass’s anguished prayer in the Agnus Dei – these are things to treasure. The timpani-haunted ambiguity of the closing pages is also truly visionary: so many conductors miss the vital questioning element in the Missa’s ending; not Harnoncourt. 

Perhaps he’s right, too, to invest in passing revelations rather than trying to find some overarching symphonic cohesion to it all. But that does mean that there are moments where the spirit retreats behind thick clouds, and we are left lumbering and floundering. 

One of the startling paradoxes of this recording is that we have a period instrument orchestra playing in a manner, and at tempos, that more often recall Karajan or even Klemperer than John Eliot Gardiner. Harnoncourt’s vibrato-heavy solo team is also a bit of a hearty blast from the past. Yet this was the recording Harnoncourt chose as his official final CD release – in effect his final message to the world. Well, in a way it does sum up his achievement: glorious, brilliant, at times just bewildering. We’d have been so much the poorer without him though, and even this has made me rethink Beethoven’s last great statement of faith and, possibly, doubt. Rating it is impossible: I’ve settled for three as a hopeless compromise.

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Stephen Johnson