Beethoven Storms the Heavens in Hereford

31/07/2015

 Three Choirs Festival (6) Beethoven:Eleanor Dennis (soprano), Jennifer Johnston (mezzo-soprano), Mark le Brocq (tenor), Edward Grint (bass-baritone) Three Choirs Festival Chorus, Philharmonia Orchestra, Adrian Partington (conductor). Hereford Cathedral, 29.7.2015 (JQ)

Beethoven – Missa Solemnis in D major, Op. 123

 

Many people regard Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis as an Everest of the choral repertoire. Sadly, one of tonight’s scheduled climbers had to be left behind at base camp. Marcus Farnsworth, the intended bass soloist, succumbed to an indisposition on the very morning of the concert. At extremely short notice Edward Grint stepped into the breach. This would have been a daunting assignment under any circumstances but I understand that Mr Grint did not even have the opportunity for rehearsal so his contribution was all the more praiseworthy. At times tonight it seemed that he was vocally somewhat underpowered compared to his three colleagues in the quartet. I rather think that all three of them have voices that are naturally more powerful than his – and they had had the luxury of time to prepare properly for the concert. But, in any case, Grint is a bass-baritone whereas Marcus Farnsworth is a bass. Much of the solo bass part is quite low-lying so it is that much more difficult for a bass-baritone to project without forcing, which Mr Grint wisely made no attempt to do. I thought he made a thoroughly creditable contribution to the quartet and when he got the chance to come into his own in the solo at the start of the Agnus Dei his singing was firm and noble of tone.

Soprano Eleanor Dennis has a strong voice and she proved fully equipped for the Leonora-like demands of her role. Her voice is easily produced, with attractively rounded tone and no trace of shrillness at the top, and she coped with the demanding, high tessitura imperiously. Once or twice I thought that perhaps she was a little too prominent in the balance of the quartet but one must make allowances for the tessitura and also the fact that it must be difficult to judge balance in music of this kind on the basis of one rehearsal in situ and with the quartet split either side of the conductor’s rostrum.

I greatly enjoyed Mark le Brocq’s contribution. His well-focussed, clear tenor rang effortlessly, it seemed, down the cathedral nave. When Beethoven demanded it he was able to project his voice strongly but he was sensitive also in blending with his colleagues. ‘Et homo factus est’ rang out affirmatively and with great conviction and, indeed, his singing in that whole episode of the Credo was admirably eloquent. Equally impressive was mezzo Jennifer Johnston. I was looking forward to hearing her because she’d been one of the excellent solo team in the live 2012 recording by Sir John Eliot Gardiner (review). I was not disappointed. Miss Johnston has a full, rich tone that falls very pleasingly on the ear. Tonight she showed that she has all the necessary vocal heft for this role but never once did she compromise the quality of her tone when singing out. She proved particularly expressive in the Agnus Dei – where all the quartet made fine contributions – offering deeply felt singing and lustrous tone.

Beethoven makes huge demands on his soloists but arguably the demands made on the chorus are even greater – if only because they have so much to do. I’ve been impressed with the Festival Chorus in the two choral concerts that I’ve already heard this week but tonight they surpassed themselves. This was a performance by the choir that was as memorable as it was tireless. Particular mention should be made of the sopranos. There are times, especially in the Gloria and Credo, where Beethoven inflicts what one might term cruel and unusual punishment on his sopranos, taking them up into the top of their register, keeping them there for long stretches and, if this were not enough, also expecting them to sing loudly. The Festival Chorus sopranos were undaunted. These high notes – and many others – were negotiated accurately and, best of all, without the slightest hint of shrillness or of the notes being pecked at. Nor were their colleagues in the other sections put in the shade – the tenors proclaimed ‘Et resurrexit’ thrillingly, for example. The taxing ‘Et vitam venturi saeculi’ passage was convincingly despatched, even when Adrian Partington hit the afterburners in the quick section. The choir was tireless right to the end; even after all that had gone before they were just as committed and secure in the closing pages of the Agnus Dei as they had been in the opening Kyrie. Much of the singing was truly exciting. For instance, the fugue on ‘In gloria Dei Patris’ towards the end of the Gloria was full of life and spirit. In the closing pages of the Gloria the choir made Beethoven’s music sound exultant, as it should, and the movement came to an appropriately heaven-storming end, the final cries of ‘Gloria’ hurled thrillingly right down the nave.  Clearly the choir had been expertly prepared in their various rehearsal groups by Geraint Bowen, Peter Nardone and Adrian Partington.

It was Mr Partington who had the responsibility for the performance itself. I thought he did a very fine job. It was evident that he galvanised the performers. At times, for instance in the ‘Et ascendit’, he took no prisoners in terms of tempo; but neither did Beethoven and the tempo selection was unerring throughout the evening, I felt. Moreover, transitions between different tempi – in the Credo and Agnus Dei, for instance – were seamlessly negotiated. It was very evident watching his gestures that Partington was paying significant attention to detail in both the vocal and orchestral parts – I loved, for example, the grainy dark textures that he obtained from the lower voices of the orchestra in the Praeludium. However, this attention to detail never obscured the big picture: Beethoven’s vision was compellingly realised.

The Philharmonia played with great commitment. At times the orchestral volume was significant, though from my vantage point the singers were never drowned. However, if the orchestra was loud the fault lies with Beethoven, I think; passages of the work are unremittingly loud. The instrumental peak of the performance was, as it should be, the violin solo in the Benedictus. Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay, the Philharmonia’s leader, gave a consummate account of this radiant solo, his violin singing sweetly. Had there been sufficient space on the platform it would have helped his projection, I’m sure, if he’d been able to stand while playing but nonetheless, his contribution was a highlight of the performance.

This was a splendid performance of Missa Solemnis. One felt that Beethoven’s vision had been absorbed by Adrian Partington and his performers and they then conveyed it excitingly to us.

John Quinn   

Full details of the 2015 Three Choirs Festival are at www.3choirs.org

 

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