Concert Review: Beethoven Missa Solemnis – Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Masaaki Suzuki – 11 May 2019

Photo credit: A. Tang

Beethoven Missa Solemnis in D major, Op. 123
Rachel Nicholls, soprano
Marianne Beate Kielland, mezzo-soprano
James Gilchrist, tenor
Christian Immler, baritone

Singapore Symphony Chorus
Eudenice Palaruan, choral director

Symphony Symphony Orchestra
Masaaki Suzuki, conductor

Esplanade Concert Hall
11 May 2019

by Derek Lim

When Beethoven wrote about his Missa Solemnis, ‘From the heart… may it return to the heart’, it’s difficult to imagine that he was referring to the many, many blustering passages that inhabit this piece. Requiring a superhuman choir – it’s much longer, much more difficult, and requires much more stamina than the finale of his Ninth Symphony, with which it received its Viennese premiere – he used large forces and a large canvas to pen his thoughts about humanity, with thoughts of war always looming not too far away.

Japanese conductor Masaaki Suzuki (right) is best known for his historically informed performances and recordings of Bach, so it’s perhaps not surprising that his take on ‘Missa’ eschewed the monumental in favour of brisk tempi that always kept the music moving along. More gentle than truly reverential at any point, ‘Kyrie’ opened promisingly, with the orchestra rapt in concentration and the solo quartet putting their stamp on the music right from the get-go.

Despite English tenor James Gilchrist’s vast experience as the Evangelist in Bach’s Passions, his highly individual voice stood out like a sore thumb among the soloists. Though put to intelligent use, it refused to blend in at any time. More sonorous, though hardly huge, was Christian Immler’s warm baritone, while Rachel Nicholl’s almost-too-effortless soprano sounded more lyrical than the dramatic roles she’s known for. But it was the Norwegian mezzo soprano Marianne Beate Kielland who most impressed, with her velvety voice and great diction always in service of the music and a constant joy to listen to.

But ‘Missa’ is so much more than just the vocal quartet, and I’m afraid the Singapore Symphony Choir showed tonight just how difficult it is. Lyric passages came off better than the more blustery ones – I’m thinking of his melismatic coda to the ‘Kyrie’ and much of the ‘Credo’ here, with the sopranos and tenors alike suffering in their murderously high parts. It was a valiant effort, with the choir often trying very hard, but then not quite managing, to achieve the full weight of the tutti passages. This was not helped by the size of the orchestra and the choir standing on risers and not at the choir gallery. Having to project over the orchestra meant that though they still started decently in the ‘Gloria’, they were vocally in tatters by the second half of the ‘Credo’ – through no fault of theirs.

Elsewhere, I would have enjoyed more reverence in ‘Et incarnatus est’ and ‘Et homo factus est’, where the tenor failed to make his mark entirely. Suzuki’s energy on the podium unfortunately failed to galvanize his forces, and despite Igor Yuzefovich’s (left) exemplary violin solo in the Benedictus (his last performance with the SSO as concertmaster), everything else felt diffused and not kept together. Things got better with Kielland making a magnificent plea for peace in the Agnus Dei, after the military tattoos. It then became woolier in the big orchestral passage just before the work’s final pages, before finally coming together nicely for the coda. All in all, it was a courageous attempt that fell short of Beethovenian fire.

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