Prom 67: Sir Colin Davis digs beneath the surface in Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis at the Proms

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Proms 67 Beethoven, Missa Solemnis in D major, Op. 123. Helena Juntunen (soprano), Sarah Connolly (mezzo), Paul Groves (tenor), Matthew Rose (bass), Gordan Nikolitch (violin), London Philarmonic Choir, London  Symphony Chorus, London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Colin Davis. Royal Albert Hall, London, 4.9. 2011 (CC)

The critic David Gutman, in the Proms’ ‘Further Listening’ spot in the booklet for the present performance refers to Colin Davis’ 1977 recording of this work (again with the LSO) as “measured and reassuring”. The same, in truth, could be said of this Proms reading.  For all its incidental beauties (and not to mention the awe-inspiring sight of the combined London Symphony and London Philharmonic Choruses, resulting in a combined tally of well over 300 performers), this was a performance that in the final analysis failed to convey the rugged grandeur of Beethoven’s masterwork. Davis looked elsewhere in the score, and what he found was at once fascinating and disturbing.

Davis has had a long history with the Missa Solemnis. Now in the twilight of his career, he sits to conduct, Klemperer-like, his gestures full of meaning, their eloquent economy conveying volumes to his forces.

There was the occasional problem with ensemble, but generally the playing was as fine as one would expect from this orchestra. The affection between this orchestra and this conductor clearly continues, and he remains a great inspirer of choruses – the sheer volume of the opening cries of “Kyrie” was astonishing. While as a listener one was reminded at times of the sheer difficulty of Beethoven’s demands, here it was never uncomfortable. There is an argument, of course, that perhaps it should be, that we should hear Beethoven’s struggles reflected in those of the performers –  an argument that would run against Davis’ internalisation of the work, though. And Davis’ view robbed the all-important choral cry of “Pater omnipotens” in the Gloria of the apocalyptic punch that Giulini could achieve.

The quartet of soloists was an interesting one. There was one withdrawal from the advertised line-up – Carmen Giannattasio, the soprano, had cancelled, allowing the excellent Finnish soprano Helena Juntunen’s voice to shine. The initial impression of her voice was that it was radiant, and that the ever-excellent Sarah Connolly had met her match. Matthew Rose was an imposing bass presence; only the tenor, Paul Groves, was a somewhat weak link, his voice too small to be a true match for his colleagues. There is another soloist – Gordan Nikolitch, the solo violinist in the Benedictus. He played standing, his lithe and active movement underpinning his involvement with the music. This was the highlight of the evening – all players and soloists seemed of one vision.

Davis let the inconclusive ending of the work resonate, disturbingly. After such monumental meditations (and Davis seems to experience, on one level at least, this piece as one long meditation), there was little feeling of satisfaction in the traditional sense at the close. The work resonated on long into the night, following us to our homes, stalking our hearts. Despite the rousing wall of sound the choruses made while in full flight, one met Beethoven’s doubts as to faith in a God head-on. A stimulating evening.

Colin Clarke