Nods to the Modern and Historical in Storgårds and the SCO’s Missa Solemnis

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven, Missa Solemnis: Rachel Willis-Sørensen (sop), Karen Cargill (mezzo), Jeremy Ovenden (tenor), Neal Davies (bass), Scottish Chamber Orchesta, SCO Chorus / John Storgårds (conductor), Usher Hall, 27.4.2017. (SRT)

The Missa Solemnis is one of the great monuments of western music, and you don’t embark upon it lightly. Happily, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra have recent experience of it: they did it in the 2015 Edinburgh Festival, with Robin Ticciati and the Edinburgh Festival Chorus. So it must have been living in their memory as they played it tonight with their own chorus and, this time, their guest conductor John Storgårds.

Storgårds’ and Ticciati’s approaches are refreshingly different. Ticciati’s method is to strip the music back and rediscover forgotten textures, and his Missa Solemnis was spare, open and very historically informed. It was thrilling and majestic, but also just a little unyielding in its presentation of Beethoven’s great edifice. Storgårds’ approach tonight was more balanced and, to my mind, more successful overall.

He used period brass and timpani to give that distinctive nutty edge to the orchestral texture, but the strings played with vibrato that surged through every phrase, thus creating a sound that nodded to both the modern and the historical and which, to my ears, brought out the best of both worlds. The brass added a hard edge to the militaristic sounds of the Agnus Dei, while at the same time remaining clean, and they added real excitement to the opening explosion of the Gloria. The same was true for the timps, which (unlike last week) were used as appropriate punctuation; magisterial in the Kyrie and very exciting in the finale of the Gloria.

The strings, on the other hand, flowed with life and colour, lacking any spareness or rawness of texture. Most obviously, the use of vibrato helped to make Benjamin Marquise Gilmore’s violin solo in the Benedictus even more assertive and moving than it could otherwise have been; but throughout the work the strings weren’t afraid to surge and flow, and Storgårds’ sensitive direction helped to bring out moments that are often lost, such as the lovely cello line that precedes “Gratias agimus tibi.”

Storgårds’ approach is a big-boned one, unashamed of the work’s majesty but also unintimidated by its reputation. He paced the opening Kyrie like a steady meditation, before turbo-charging the Gloria and taking the Gloria Dei Patris fugue at a cracking lick. He was also capable of changing mood in a flicker, from the expository opening of the Credo to the awe-struck wonder of “Et incarnatus est” (with its almost absent-minded flute solo sounding wonderful).

His soloists were also big in approach, except for the tenor of Jeremy Ovenden who regularly struggled to make his presence known. Rachel Willis-Sørensen toned down her huge Wagnerian instrument to become much more entreating in the Agnus Dei, and Karen Cargill’s rich, lustrous mezzo sounded fantastic at the start of the Sanctus.  Neal Davies sang the Agnus Dei as if it were Act 2 of Die Walküre, an approach I really enjoyed.

Stars of the evening, however, were the SCO Chorus, who took the huge work entirely in their stride and made it sound as though they’d been singing it for years.  Their size (74 singers on stage, supplemented by the Edinburgh University Chamber Choir) meant that the proportions of the sound textures were just right, and even the most devilish tessitura (such as the tenors at “Et resurrexit”) didn’t seem to scare them. They weren’t afraid to scythe their way through the great blocks of sound at the beginning of the Gloria and Credo, and they seemed not just to survive but to thrive on Storgårds’ nippy pace for the great “In gloria Dei Patris” fugue. The only place where the wheels threatened to come off was in the “Et vitam venturi” fugue, but they pulled it together to avoid disaster, and their expressive cries of “Pacem!” in the final, battle-scarred minutes felt like genuine pleading. They’re on a great run of form at the minute, and their director, Gregory Batsleer, deserves a lot of credit.

This was a hugely successful performance, then, and it’s so gratifying that it should be home-grown here in Edinburgh. Now that the nights are getting lighter, the dizzy heights of the festival can’t be far away, but tonight was proof that we don’t always need international jet-setters to give us evenings of top class music-making.

Simon Thompson

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