Haitink Goes On and on: a Masterly Missa Solemnis

SwitzerlandSwitzerland  Beethoven  Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, Bernard Haitink (conductor), Ricarda Merbeth (soprano)  Bernarda Fink (mezzosoprano), Werner Güra (tenor), Christof Fischesser (bass) Zürcher Singakademie,  Tonhalle Zurich  26.3.2014 (JR)

Beethoven:   Missa Solemnis

Bernard Haitink is now a phenomenon. He turned a staggering 85 earlier this month and conducted the Tonhalle Orchestra in what is clearly one of his favourite works. At his age and stature he can now afford the luxury of only conducting his favourite works. Apart from stepping off the podium at the end rather gingerly, and a slight stumble, he hardly showed his venerable age. He stood throughout whilst conducting, only resting on a stool between movements. The choir sat down more than he did.

Haitink was never an acrobatic conductor, relying on his clear and steady beat, his clenched or trembling left hand to denote more power or expression and his innate musicianship. He usually has a score in front of him, and actually turns the pages, though in this work he clearly knows every bar, every note, every entry and understands the structure. He does not bow to period performance nor does he exaggerate; this was a traditional old-style performance but none the worse for that. Tempi were well judged so that when the quicker passages came for the choir, they were not unduly harassed. At no stage did the work become leaden or stodgy, start to finish was accomplished in a swift 70 minutes.

Whilst the capacity audience was in thrall to the maestro, this performance was very much a team effort. The excellent professional chorus was formed three years ago and has been trained in fine English choral tradition by Tim Brown (ex Music Director of Clare College Cambridge and now also in charge of English Voices). All registers were equally strong, intonation was spot on and entries were clean. The tenors did not hesitate with their many exposed high entries, “Quoniam tu solus sanctus” and “Et resurrexit” in particular; there was no audible strain in their young voices.

The Kyrie made a solid start, the ensuing Gloria (especially the section “et vitam venturi”) was properly thrilling, with the final “Glorias” virtually hurled into the body of the hall. I was much taken by the choir’s hushed uttering of “pacem, pacem” on the final serene page of this glorious work. The choir never ran out of steam, despite Beethoven’s punishing use (for tenors and sopranos) of lengthy high notes.

The soloists made an impressive line-up. Austrian soprano Ricarda Merbeth (a regular in Bayreuth as Elisabeth in Thielemann’s Tannhäuser and Senta in The Flying Dutchman) was most impressive, soaring above the stave. Bernarda Fink made less of an impression, probably because the part provides fewer highlights and is simply supportive. Bavarian tenor Werner Güra was perhaps the pick of the bunch and Zurich is fortunate to have him teach in its music school. His openings to “Pleni sunt coeli” and “Osanna” were first rate. Christof Fischesser, a member of Zurich Opera’s ensemble, was a very dark bass, rather than a warm one, perhaps more suited to roles such as Sparafucile than this work.

The orchestra played at the top of their game. Haitink made the Leader, Julia Becker, stand for her solo in the “Benedictus”; I have heard it more sweetly played, but its transcendent ending almost cannot fail to steal the show. If I had to nitpick, I felt the drums of war and martial trumpets were a mite pallid.

The first really warm days of Spring have brought out the cuckoos, cherry blossom and, it seems, the choirs. Philippe Herreweghe recently brought his Collegium Vocale Gent to Zurich with a fine “Creation”, Ton Koopman conducts the Tonhalle Orchestra shortly in a “St. John Passion”, returning in the summer with his Amsterdam Baroque Choir and Orchestra for a “B Minor Mass.” Over Easter the Basel Sinfonietta visit for two performances of Brahms “German Requiem”.

But this evening’s performance belonged to Haitink, even though he never stepped onto the podium to acknowledge the reverence in which he is held.   Long may he continue.

John Rhodes

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