BEETHOVEN Missa Solemnis. Various/SWR RSO/Norrington (HANSSLER) – INKPOT

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Missa Solemnis, op.123

Amanda Halgrimson soprano
Cornelia Kallisch alto
John Aler tenor
Alastair Miles bass

(Choir Director: Hans-Christian Rademann)
SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart
(Choir Director: Rupert Huber)
SWR Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart
conducted by Sir Roger Norrington

HÄNSSLER Classic CD 93.006
[72:58] full-price

by Benjamin Chee
Following the flagship release of his Elgar First Symphony and Wagner’s Die Meistersinger Prelude comes Sir Roger Norrington’s second album in the Faszination Musik series. As the new director of the SWR Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart, he now adds Beethoven’s weighty Missa Solemnis to the orchestra’s repertoire; this album is taken from recent recordings in the Stuttgart Beethovensaal in July 1999 at the Schwetzinger Festival.

Beethoven himself had considered the mass to be his greatest work, writing in a letter to Cherubini that “I have just completed a solemn mass and called it my biggest and most perfect achievement.” Historically, however, it took the composer much longer than he had planned. In fact, he had intended to complete it for the coronation of his pupil, Archduke Randolph, as the Archbishop of Olmütz, on March 9th, 1820, but the music was not completed until the summer of 1822, well past the red-letter date.

The full premiere came even later on April 1824 in St Petersburg, although it was never performed in its entirety in Vienna in Beethoven’s lifetime. Three items (Kyrie, Credo and Agnus Dei) were performed on May 7th, 1824, together with the premiere of the Ninth Symphony. The story of how the soprano Caroline Unger had to turn the deaf composer around to acknowledge the applause at the end of the symphony is well known, but less well-known is the fact that Madam Unger and the mezzo Mlle. Henriette Sontag both performed the Missa Solemnis under protest because of the difficult solo parts.

Norrington undertakes this performance with a stellar cast of soloists and choristers: tenor John Aler and bass Alastair Miles need no introduction, while alto Cornelia Kallisch is a familiar name in the Hänssler catalogue. Soprano Amanda Halgrimson has been making the rounds of the European opera and concert circuit, and together they form a most impressive quartet indeed.

That said, the opening Kyrie gets off to a somewhat heavy-handed, albeit surefooted, reading by Norrington. The monumental choral incantation is delivered with a very deliberate assai sostenuto, reminiscent of medieval free-flowing church formulas; perhaps Norrington makes too much of this. The entry of the soloists – Aler, Halgrimson and then Kallisch – alleviates the heavy weather to a certain extent, but there is no mistaking the robustness in Norrington’s approach.

This incisiveness carries over into the chorus of the Gloria, as strongly executed (pun unintended) as ever – but what catches the attention is the orchestra, here blazing away with white-hot intensity, vibrant and vigorous. With the entry of the sweetly-blended soli on the Gratias agimus tibi, the urgency of the reading goes up a notch: first the tenor-bass pair, then soprano-alto, and finally the chorus. The larghetto of the Qui tollis builds up grandly to the Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris – this point being one of the clearest instances of the “live” quality of the recording, with the soloists clearly placed forward of the chorus.

Sweeping away the overcast of the opening, this section concludes with a well-rehearsed Quoniam tu; the final fugal section does go on for a bit, Beethovenian key modulations and all, but Norrington astutely builds up this longeur with accumulating force. The closing invocation Gloria, gloria, gloria is exuberant, almost frightening in its intensity.

The Credo, the biggest movement of the entire work, begins with a huge orchestral outburst that is immediately taken up by the chorus, now more than properly warmed up. Again, the soloists deliver the Et homo factus est with superb ensemble. A pity that the hushed intensity of the following Crucifixus etiam is marred by audience noise, but the erumpent chorus at Et resurrexit and recapitulation of the Credo is sheer atomic-grade quality.

The repose of the Sanctus, coming after the apocalyptic Sturm und Drang of the preceding section, is impressive: the musicians respond to Norrington with much Einfühlungsvermögen (to use the local vernacular). It is therefore all the more pity that the violin solo bridging into the Benedictus fails to capture the ecclesiastical mood of everything that has just gone by.

Even so, the final Agnus dei, which Beethoven himself described as “a prayer for inward and outer peace”, sets things right – the ennui of the beginning seems to have disappeared for good and Norrington confidently brings the work to its serene and unextravagant conclusion. The descant trumpet fanfare at Dona nobis pacem has a distinct martial air about it; each of the soloist entries is also striking, without being idiosyncratic.

The quality of sound is open and spacious – listeners unused to this acoustic should adjust quickly. The audience, while present, is on the whole unobtrusive (except for the single abovementioned instance) and indeed, is remarkably quiet. Norrington’s interpretation and rapport with his performers is first-class; the result is very much desirable and bears well under repeated listening – skip the first track (if you must), but everything else thereafter is an experience to relish.

BENJAMIN CHEE has quite a number of black T-shirts, but strenuously denies being a member of the gothic movement (underground or otherwise).

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8xx: 4.3.2001 Benjamin Chee

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