A Revelatory Missa Solemnis from Nikolaus Harnoncourt

April 28, 2012

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven: Missa Solemnis in D major, Op. 123. Soloists, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Netherlands Radio Choir, Nikolaus Harnoncourt (conductor), Barbican Hall London, 11. 4. 2012. (GD)

Marlis Petersen (soprano)
Elisabeth Kullman (mezzo-soprano)
Werner Gura (tenor)
Gerald Finley (baritone)

The Missa Solemnis still arouses mixed opinions. Whereas compositions like the A minor String Quartet, Op 132, and the ‘Hammerklavier’ Piano Sonata, Op. 106, are universally, unequivocally acclaimed as great masterpieces, the Missa is seen either as Beethoven’s greatest work – Beethoven himself claimed it to be the greatest of his works – or as something less than great. Theodor Adorno wrote an interesting, if complex essay (1957) which claimed that the Missa is basically a flawed work. Adorno even goes as far as to say that it is not recognisable as part of the Beethoven canon. He saw it as too derivative, badly composed and regressive; having negative ‘archaizising’ tendencies. Although having said this, Adorno probably had a more complex diacritical agenda, casting the positive in the negative. We find exactly opposite assessments from English musicologists such as Donald Tovey and the late Cambridge musical scholar Basil Lam, who both, in their different ways, saw the work as exceeding even Beethoven’s established masterpieces in terms of greatness; as among the most noble and important creations in the Western canon. Another more recent criticism is that the Missa is a rather pompous, loud and monumental work encouraging old maestro grandiosity. And, indeed, in recent performing history, the Missa has been associated with monumental conductorial gestures and gravitas, something completely out of favour today, rightly or wrongly.

From the Kyrie’s opening sustained D major chords, leading to the F sharp variants in the upper register, Harnoncourt’s performance struck me as the clearest I have heard in terms of orchestral balance, each instrumental timbre beautifully distinct but also cohering to the unity of each section. . This lucidity became quite magical with the choir’s opening cries of ‘Kyrie’, the chorus perfectly balanced with the orchestra. I was struck by the meticulous attention to details. For example, each time those tremendous cries of ‘Kyrie’ occur the last syllable is sung piano. It always is, of course, but never sounds quite so astonishing and arrested as it did here. Harnoncourt took quite a broad tempo, around 54, but the music never dragged, as it so often does. This measured tempo allowed such details to register as the dialogue between clarinet and bassoon before the soloists start their ‘Christe eleison’ quartet. This initiates the tonal register of B and the music works out its tonal path through D and G, closing on F sharp minor; this in turn giving way again to the D major of the Kyrie. Harnoncourt evinced from the superb Concertgebouw Orchestra a remarkable degree of light and shade, one example found in the way he graded the D major unifying chords, the rapid diminuendo from ff to piano in the space of a bar. I have not experienced this kind of striking detail in the Missa since hearing the famous Toscanini recordings of the work.

The contrast between the quiet ending of the Kyrie and the dazzling energy of the Allegro vivace Gloria had an astounding dramatic impact. The level of inner string counterpoint alone was exemplary, Harnoncourt correctly deploying antiphonal violins. Harnoncourt’s traversal of the Gloria’s changing tempi and tonality, all corresponding meticulously to the liturgical setting, was quite amazing. So often this movement can sound sectionalised, but here Harnoncourt assured a wonderful degree of contrast within a masterful unity. Of the criticisms of the Missa, mentioned above, one was that Beethoven was inept in terms of matching the music with the liturgical text, either because he rushed the composition or because he didn’t fully understand the meaning of the Latin liturgy. But after hearing Harnoncourt’s superb handling of the transition from Allegro vivace to the Larghetto in F major for the ‘Qui tollis’, such criticisms sound absurd. Furthermore, I was transfixed by Beethoven’s extraordinary understanding of the text, the way he works this setting out as a threefold prayer with plaintive woodwinds and a tapestry of tonal registers around F, D and B flat. The Allegro maestoso section on the text ‘Quoniam tu solus sanctus’ established the sostenuto leading to the great D major closing fugue on ‘in gloria Dei Patris, Amen’. Tovey regarded this as one of Beethoven’s greatest fugues and comments on what he finds totally “strange” and unexpected. After a full exposition of this gigantic fugue, which seems as if it could resound endlessly, the chorus suddenly recedes ‘into the distance’, while the soloists enter singing, over a solemn cantus firmus in the tenors and basses, the words ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’. Tovey’s point here revolves around the level of dramatic anticipation this transition produces in the listener. “What new developments are going to happen?” Within the compass of six bars “Beethoven contrives to give the sense that this passage has gone round the universe”. The whole colossal section ends with a huge cantus firmus pedal crescendo in a series of six modulations, each tone higher than the last. The Gloria ends in jubilation, with a presto in D major, with repeated shouts of ‘Gloria’ from choir. As Tovey so aptly puts it ”the actual last word ‘Gloria’ [is] thrown into the air by the chorus after the orchestra has finished”, with jubilant punctuations in brass, horns and timpani. Obviously such complex, contrasted music requires incredible resilience and insight from orchestra, soloists and chorus. All this was balanced, structured and contoured with absolutely compelling conviction by Nikolaus Harnoncourt.

The qualities found in the Gloria Harnoncourt discovered again in the Credo, another movement of varied emotional contrasts and powerfully dramatic music. The most immediate and noticeable thing about his performance of the Credo was how un-ponderous were the rhythms and tempi adopted. As in the Gloria it was Harnoncourt’s mastery of Beethoven’s dynamics which coloured the drama of the Credo – the sudden piano of ‘et invisibilium’, the mystery of the pp (following on the ff) at the words ‘ante omnia saecula’, the gentle lyrical phrasing of the woodwind accompaniment to ‘Qui propter nos homines’. Harnoncourt’s sensitivity in matters of balance, in both orchestra and chorus, negated the criticism that Beethoven’s orchestration was heavy-handed; it only sounds heavy-handed in heavy-handed performances. In the whole ‘Et incarnatus est’ sequence Harnoncourt inspired a delicacy of touch in the pp woodwind passages. This whole episode, which is marked pp in the wind and string parts throughout until the crescendo in the last bar, was a model of articulation and warm cantando phrasing. The bright D major cadence of the tenors’ ‘Et homo factus est’ was contrasted superbly with the whispered awe of the preceding passages and was no less impressive for the Andante being regarded by Harnoncourt as con moto. The ‘Crucifixus’ was heightened by the tremendous power of the orchestral hammer-blows, representing the nailing to the Cross Harnoncourt’s f and sfp were so intense as to elicit surprise, when going to the score, that Beethoven used no timpani here. Harnoncourt proved that he had no need to do so. Harnoncourt brought immense pathos to the passage beginning with ‘sub Pontio Pilato passus’ and ending with a wonderful four bars of p-dim-pp-piú dim-ppp at the final ‘et sepultus est’. There was an outburst of vigorous rhythm with the change to Allegro molto for the rising excitement of ‘et ascendit in coelum’ and a lovely clarity to the counterpoint of the long build up (without violins) of ‘et vitam venturi saeculi’ and its subsequent climax. The ‘et vitam venturi saeculi, Amen’ builds to a tremendous climax on the dominant, repeated at a more maestoso tempo. The grand cadence dies away with, as Tovey put it, “Beethoven’s favourite choral effect of suddenly receding into the depths of the universe.” This miraculous coda was a model of dynamic contrast, with Harnoncourt hammering out the four ff chords of ‘Amen’, and then suddenly reverting to pp, with sotto voce soloists.

Many commentators have found the dolce cantabile solo violin part in the Benedictus inappropriate and sentimental. This is not a view shared by such Beethoven experts as Tovey. He found the solo violin entry, supported by two flutes, and as a “ray of light” after the dark, minor key brooding of the ‘Praeludium’, to be “one of those simple strokes of genius which, once accomplished, seem to have been in the world since time began”. This was a view obviously shared by Harnoncourt, who coaxed some wonderfully interwoven violin work from the leader of the Concertgebouw Orchestra. I particularly liked the way he timed the dynamics of the D major forte chords, with trumpets and timpani cutting through the choral textures in ‘in nomine Domini’ , while at the same time never sounding intrusive or brash. And again Harnoncourt demonstrated that the concluding ascending fugue for tutti orchestra and chorus, to the words ‘Osanna in Excelsis’, need not sound four-square or ponderous by attending to the lucidity of each phrase, and allowing especially the accompanying woodwind and brass counterpoint to be heard. The tempi here were forward moving but never sounded rushed.

The Agnus Dei is in B minor, a key rarely used by Beethoven and thought by him to be an extremely dark tonal register. The opening long Adagio is the most introspective and sombre section of the Missa. It is introspective, but it also has a feeling of vastness about it, made more intense by Harnoncourt taking a fairly slow tempo, maintaining the sense of a slow funeral march, with underlying movement. The mood of darkness is intensified by the instrumentation in the lower registers, particularly the sounds of the bassoons and lower brass with celli and violas, and the solo bass voice intoning the words ‘Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi: Miserere nobis’. In the transition from the darkness of the Agnus Dei to the initial light and joy of the ‘Dona nobis pacem, re-establishing the D major home key, Beethoven again makes one of his magical transitions of contrast. Harnoncourt managed the transition as a single unbroken and contrasted musical line. The lightness of the upward figures in the strings had the feel of the first movement of the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony, about them. This movement has been described as a struggle between war and peace. Actually it is an argument between two tonal registers, one in the optimistic home key of D major, the other in B flat major which adds the war-like military component. Which element wins through Beethoven leaves undecided. The resounding ‘Dona nobis pacem’ in the full chorus gives way to the rhythmic ferocity of a presto double fugue, led by the strings, followed by the martial sounds of war in trumpets and drums. The soprano’s sustained cry of ‘Dona’ piercing though the sounds of war sounded both terrible and theatrical; almost like a post-revolutionary operatic scena. This was probably the climax of Harnoncourt’s performance and he timed each section, each dynamic contrast to perfection with the soprano leading back to the ‘Dona nobis pacem’ theme and the coda with ominous, soft broken rhythms/taps on the timpani. An urgent question mark, a warning note relating to the destruction of war? The brief closing bars in the major never really dispelling these war-like omens.

Throughout the performance Harnoncourt used very little vibrato, deployed period timpani, and what sounded like natural horns. No one is more skilled at getting a modern symphony orchestra to play in period style. And the wonderful Concertgebouw Orchestra, who have been used to playing for Harnoncourt for many years, responded meticulously to his every nuance. All the soloists sang well. I had a slight preference for the soprano and contralto over the tenor and bass. But they all responded to Harnoncourt and Beethoven with absolute conviction, as did the Netherlands Radio Choir

After the long applause Harnoncourt was awarded with medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society. Initially he looked slightly embarrassed by the spurious ceremony of such rituals. But he accepted it with characteristic humility. The medal is associated with Beethoven himself and bears the image of the great composer. Over 140 years it has been awarded to the likes of Toscanini and Pierre Boulez. I can’t think of a more worthy recipient to join the ranks of such illustrious musicians.

Geoff Diggines

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