Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Beethoven: Missa Solemnis - The Monteverdi Chor, ORR, Gardiner

Ludwig van Beethoven
Missa Solemnis
Margiono, Robbin, Kendall, Miles, The Monteverdi Chor,
Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, John Eliot Gardiner
Archiv 429 779-2

We know that the Missa solemnis has moments of the utmost and loveliest serenity, others when a spirit of confidence reigns, when grandeur is proclaimed with harmonic simplicity, and assurance affirmed with measured tread. Yet it's the great whirls of sound, the divine scattering and striving, the straining of the soul to dance in freedom from all laws of time and formal conventions that ultimately characterize the work in our minds. "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a Heaven for?" Exactly: Beethoven seems to be reaching beyond human grasp, and one of Heaven's good works must surely be to give the Missa solemnis its ideal performance, liberated from all constraints of matter.

Well, it now appears we do not need to wait that long. With his expert choir of 36 and his orchestra of 60 (with original instruments), Gardiner, like Terje Kvam on Nimbus before him, sheds some of the weight of numbers usually employed; he also has a team of soloists without weaknesses, and, it must be added, his own genius for making all things new. Comparison between the two recordings hardly needs to go beyond the first entry of the choir, where Gardiner's singers bring meaning and urgency to their cries of "Kyrie" which with Kvam's Oslo Cathedral Choir are scarcely more than formal statements.

Not that one would wish to follow this line of demonstration, for the performance under Kvam deserves something better than merely to serve as a foil. Still, the essential point has to be made, and one could go to the far end of the work for a further example and compare the control of tension in the Agnus Del. With Gardiner the change of key to B flat, as drums and trumpets introduce the terrors of war, is chillingly sudden: the timpani are more precisely tuned, the acoustic is sharper, the timing more dramatic. And consequently the return to peace in the "Dona nobis pacem" with its 6/8 rhythm, banishes the grim horsemen of the Apocalypse and substitutes a joyful, even frisky canter over the Elysian fields. The other performance is good, but it has nothing like this. Nor have most other recordings. For instance, the most recent, under Jeffrey Tate (EMI), creates no comparable tension, for the war passage is not really allegro assai and though things settle back with serenity they don't have this joyful buoyancy and lift.

Another factor is the very crucial matter of balance. Many recordings have brought their soloists too far forward, shine too bright a light on them, and many others have had the chorus too far back. The Tate recording is an example of the first, Kvam of the second. Here the balance is right, and separation of the various elements has been achieved without exaggeration or any sense of unnaturalness.

It is indeed an outstanding recording in every respect. If one wished to cavil, it might be over the absence of appoggiaturas now generally accepted in the quasi-recitative cries of "Agnus Dei" in the 'war' passage just mentioned, or perhaps to object that the "Pleni sunt coeli" (given to the soloists) is not so much allegro pesante as presto brillante. The Credo also goes at a tempo faster than usual, possibly not taking sufficient heed of the ma non troppo qualifying allegro. Even so, there seems nothing forced here and the relative lightness of the forces, both choral and orchestral, makes such speeds viable and with exhilarating effect, felt most magically of all in the "Et vitam venturi" fugues. Each of the soloists contributes fine work, and they are an entirely homogeneous quartet (unlike those in the Tate recording, for example). I personally have the strongest reason to regret the record's appearance at this particular moment, for it coincides with the publication of Choral Music on Records (Cambridge University Press) which AB has edited and in which the chapter on the Missa solemnis is written my myself (see page 1653). I suspect the survey would have reached a different conclusion if the Gardiner recording had then been available, for my present conviction is that it is best of all.

J.B.S., Gramophone Magazine 1991

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