Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis: Difficult Work, More Difficult Circumstances

United StatesUnited States  Beethoven, Missa solemnisChristine Brewer (Soprano), Michelle de Young (Mezzo-Soprano), Simon O’Neill (Tenor), Eric Owens (Bass-Baritone), Malcolm Lowe (Solo Violin), Boston Symphony Orchestra, Tanglewood Festival Chorus, John Oliver (Conductor), Carnegie Hall, New York, 6.3.2012 (SSM)

Beethoven’s Missa solemnis is one of the most challenging scores for a conductor, whose worst nightmare might be having to perform it on less than twenty-four hours notice. John Oliver, a last-minute replacement for Kurt Masur who was the replacement for James Levine, received mixed reviews at his Boston premiere in late February. This Carnegie Hall concert was his fourth live performance with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, and the interim week must certainly have helped him pull some of the looser elements together. While this was far from a seamless presentation, all the parties involved were self-assured and enthusiastic. If at times they weren’t a tightly knit group, how many other performances of the Missa solemnis are totally cohesive, outside of those by Toscanini, Klemperer or Beecham?

The opening Kyrie epitomized the pluses and minuses of the entire reading. It started off with a muddy sound, the orchestra overpowering the soloists at their entry, and as a result one missed the impact of the solo quartet’s voices, which should pierce through the massive sound layer in their cry for mercy. However, once the soloists established themselves as a presence, they had the fortitude necessary to move the piece forward. Similarly, the chorus – without scores – sang with confidence, their eyes fixed on the conductor’s spare gestures.

The unusual ending of the Kyrie (the final note is a pizzicato from the strings marked pp with a fermata) and the chorus’s sudden declamation of “Gloria” always comes as a surprise, and it did so here even if the groups were slightly out of balance. The chorus again excelled in some very difficult music even though it was at the expense of vocal clarity. Distinct enunciation in a work like this that demands so much vocally is difficult, but it should be lucid enough for the audience to at least be certain the chorus is singing “Credo” and not “Crucifixus.”

The Credo is another challenge for any chorus, and the Tanglewood Festival Orchestra met it head on. At one point, on the word omnipotentem at the beginning of the Credo, the sopranos in the chorus are asked to hold a B5 note for almost four measures. Is this Beethoven’s way, as he states at the beginning of the score, of permanently instilling religious feelings into the singers? If so, I should think that every chorus member might have been converted. The high point of the evening was the magical violin solo that precedes and continues through the Benedictus. Violinist Malcolm Lowe played radiantly, in spite of some brief instances where the soloists and chorus overpowered him. One of those special musical moments, this violin solo seems to appear out of nowhere and disappears just as quickly. This approach was also used Richard Strauss in the ecstatic solo entry of the violin in “Beim Schlafengehen” from Vier letzte Lieder.

The coda of the Missa Solemnis is unusual for Beethoven in that it is surprisingly brief. The final notes came so suddenly that Oliver seemed shocked himself, dropping his hands (the traditional symbol that it is okay to applaud) midway through the last note.

Stan Metzger