Thielemann’s Beethoven is Not Overwhelming, but Food for Thought

GermanyGermany Beethoven: Luba Orgonášová (soprano), Elisabeth Kulman (mezzo-soprano), Daniel Behle (tenor), Franz-Josef Selig (bass). Berlin Radio Choir (chorus master: Philipp Ahmann), Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Christian Thielemann (conductor). Philharmonie, Berlin, 14.12.2017. (MB)

Beethoven – Mass in D major, op.123 (Missa solemnis)

There are musical works at which, in awe, one strain’s one’s aural neck – and then there is the Missa solemnis (no need, just like the Ninth Symphony, to say whose). It has its detractors; so does Fidelio. However, their accusations, in both cases, seem founded on gross misunderstandings of what Beethoven was doing. Ultimately, they perhaps even add to the works’ stature: almost unquestionably so, I think, in the case of the Missa solemnis. Its extreme difficulty is both the point and not the point. As with all late Beethoven, indeed pretty much all Beethoven, dialectics ensure that difficulty and simplicity, rupture and wholeness, so on and so forth, are not just banally ‘connected’, but inconceivable, conceptually let alone performatively, with one another.

Performance: there’s the rub, or perhaps the greatest rub. I have noticed that, with many honourable exceptions, it is singers who are most likely to condemn those works of Beethoven that include voices. (It is surely an error to name them ‘vocal works’, a mistake that gets close to the heart of the matter.) If you want concessions, to your personal taste, to your ease of performance or listening, concessions to anything really: Beethoven could hardly be less your man. It is not ‘about you’, as the modern slogan has it. And yes, I know very well that I am drawing upon, thinking and writing within, the Romantic myth of Beethoven, of the towering, glowering genius. Such knowledge, whether we like it or no, is the essence of our modern and/or post-modern predicament. Guess what, though? The myth happens to be true. The enigmatic quality and the extreme difficulty are integral to the work; in the complexity of its attempted, impossible mediation between subject and object, they are, just as in Hegel (well, more or less ‘just as’), doing the work of Geist (Spirit), of God, of history, of whatever we want to call it, or It. Calling the Missa solemnis a ‘concert work’ is at best misleading, despite its actual – as opposed to envisaged – performance history. It is not only a sacred work, but a resanctification of, through serious reckoning with, the Mass itself – and not only its text. Reactionaries will not like that, but so what? Nor does Geist.

Performance, however, is not, as it were, the only rub. The business of aesthetics, of reflection upon art, almost immediately, even immanently, arises with this work. Such is modernity – and is this not most likely Beethoven’s most modern work of all? I have long entertained the fantasy – and who knows: sometimes fantasies are realised – that the Missa solemnis in particular and perhaps Beethoven in general would be my retirement job. (Let us leave aside the sad reflection that retirement itself will doubtless remain a mere fantasy for those of us betrayed and destroyed by the ‘Brexit’ generation.) I certainly do not feel remotely prepared to tackle it yet. In that respect, I both take heart and become ever more fearful from Furtwängler’s decision no longer to perform it. Like Beethoven himself – and surely we ought to afford his view a little respect, Wellington’s Victory notwithstanding – Furtwängler thought it Beethoven’s single greatest work, yet considered its challenges too great for him or indeed anyone else ever to be able to realise. And if Furtwängler, surely the greatest recorded Beethovenian of all, thought so…

Furtwängler’s view has overwhelmingly, tragically, been proved correct. I cannot, of course, claim to know all recorded performances of the Missa solemnis, let alone all other performances. Of the recordings as such (as opposed to performances that have survived on recording) only Klemperer’s 1966 version for me really confronts its challenges head on and emerges with credit. (One can hardly say ‘surmounts’ them; no one surmounts Beethoven’s challenges, or if (s)he does, that is perhaps the most lamentable fate of all.) And, perhaps perversely, although I should like to think in some sense dialectically – well I would, wouldn’t I? – I had, before this performance from Christian Thielemann and Berlin forces, attended only one performance in the concert hall. True, they do not necessarily come along so very often, but nor are they so rare as that might imply. I had not wanted to risk a mediocre, let alone a poor, performance: bad enough in symphonic Beethoven – what is more soul-destroying than thinking ‘pointless’ and-or ‘meaningless’ to a performance of the Fifth Symphony? – but somehow even worse here, for it might end up sounding like what its detractors think it does. I had chosen my single performance well: Colin Davis, shortly before his death, and with mortality seemingly, even at the time, hanging over Beethoven’s grand reckoning not only with the Mass but with God Himself. It was a performance I shall never forget – and again, like Klemperer, that is part of the problem for whatever comes after. It may, I believe, also be listened to on YouTube, but I have never felt the desire to try – and doubtless to fail – to repeat an unrepeatable experience. (Indeed, although I have offered a link to the review, I do not yet even wish to re-read it.) And the thoughts it gave rise to, seemingly spanning the entirety of musical and theological history, or doubtless I flatter myself…

Apologies for having spent so long, relatively speaking, concerning my own thoughts, or attempts at thoughts, about the work rather than the performance. (Believe me, I could have gone on for much, much longer; I almost thought myself retired.) They seemed necessary, though, not even merely advisable, to explain how I heard Thielemann’s performance – or perhaps, to those who gained far more from it, how I did not hear it. Or perhaps I too was avoiding a confrontation. It seems somehow almost unforgivably banal to move to saying ‘it had much to admire, yet…’. And yet, that is what I must do; for, despite many very real virtues, the sheer excellence of all performing forces the greatest among them, I was left almost entirely cold. Was that another turn, as it were, of the Adornian dialectical screw? I thought I had truly grasped the work, however fleetingly, and then had not? Maybe a little, but not really, I think.

Thielemann clearly knew the work, or the notes, and what he wanted from it, or them. He was conducting from memory. Moreover, he clearly knew exactly how to get what he wanted from those uniformly excellent performers. Any criticisms I shall make are in no sense criticisms of them. One might have thought that a musician who, not unaggressively, positions himself as a standard bearer of the great German tradition would have been in a good position to communicate the mysteries of this work. There is, of course, no single tradition, though. And whilst I have in the past admired Thielemann’s Beethoven greatly – his recordings with the Philharmonia, for instance – his more recent Beethoven, still more so his Wagner, seems to have been filtered through a materialist conception that might work for Strauss, and often does work for him, magnificently, but which cannot really cope with the meaning(s) of works by Beethoven and Wagner. We can certainly applaud the need not to say the same thing over and over again, or indeed merely to imitate the past; but that does not mean that an alternative, simply by virtue of being an alternative, has any of the answers.

The full, warm sound of the Berlin Philharmonic at the opening of the Kyrie augured well: not entirely unlike Thielemann’s Philharmonia Beethoven; perhaps also with a certain kinship to the Klang of Leonard Bernstein’s Concertgebouw recording; not much at all in common with the sound of any of Herbert von Karajan’s intriguing multiple attempts at reckoning with the work (see, for instance, here and here), although perhaps at another level – deeper or shallower? perhaps both? – not so distant conceptually from Karajan’s approach. Authenticists would not have liked it, but who cares? And the bounds of the movement – perhaps the only one that has recognisable bounds – were well chosen; I was put in mind of an observation from Joseph Kerman to the effect that this was the only part of Beethoven’s setting that had no hyperbole. (I cannot recall his precise words, and do not have them here with me to check, so I hope that I shall be forgiven for distortion, misattribution, or even downright invention!) Moreover, whilst, from observing Thielemann, one might have feared an overly moulded performance, it did not – at least not here – sound like one. And if one had a problem with what it looked like, one could also, as with Bernstein, close one’s eyes. (Even Karajan did not, of course, do that for works with chorus when conducting them.) There was, moreover, a fine sense of a ‘natural’ – however constructed that might have been – tread to the movement’s progress. Beethoven, quite rightly, was not to be hurried; nor was he to be static. Individual soloists versus the ‘mass’ of the chorus sounded in balance, and dramatically rather than banally so. It did not ‘sound like’ Haydn, but perhaps still belonged in a similar conception to his. Beethoven as (sort of) Haydn? That is hardly unreasonable, especially here.

The rest of the Mass does not, of course, and rarely if ever did Thielemann seem quite to know – not that I think he was not trying – to portray, to dramatise that. The breakneck speed of the opening of the Gloria was surely an attempt, far from unreasonable, to do that – but what does reason, at least Enlightenment reason, have to do with this work? Superlative playing from the orchestra and superlative singing from the chorus impressed, as did the extraordinary clarity of what one heard: bassoons beneath the chorus, for instance. It ‘worked’, I think, but something was missing. The beating Larghetto heart of the movement arguably did not, Thielemann seemingly struggling to establish a basic pulse, although the woodwind solos predictably ravished in a materialist fashion. Even once the pulse had settled, though, it all sounded a little too glamorous. There was, though, a welcome sense of decision to follow: there can be no argument with either Beethoven or Whoever Stands Above Him; or alternatively, there can, but it will fail. Such good work, very sadly, was largely undone by a preposterously indulgent Luftpause before ‘in glora Dei Patris’. What might work – might – in Thielemann’s Meistersinger ‘Wach auf!’ does not work here; it came across as mere egotism. Just because you can do something, it does not follow that you should. Following that, perhaps not inappropriately in situ, came weirdly operatic ‘Amens’. Beethoven as Verdi? No thank you.

Still more is at stake in Beethoven’s Credo, both statement of and struggle to believe. Here, alas, there was far too little sense of struggle. Tension was built up admirably in the first section, very controlled, even controlling, but that is not to be disdained; we hardly want a free-for-all. It was, again, mightily impressive. ‘Et incarnatus est’ brought Palestrina, increasingly adorned, to the stage, not unlike an aural representation of a Gothic church, decorated by Rococo successors. Egotism once again, however, brought a bizarrely prolonged silence between the ‘Crucifixus’ and ‘Et resurrexit’ sections. Perhaps this is unfair, but it was almost as if Thielemann wanted to dare the audience not to fidget, or even to applaud. What followed was highly theatrical – one may argue about whether it should be, but it is not an outrageous conception – without ever conveying any real sense of theological, or other, meaning. Neutrality as opposed to neutralising tendencies doing batter with subjectivity in the material and its development? Beethoven as sewing pattern? Again, no thank you.

That tendency to draw out ‘preparations’ – not in a liturgical sense – was again to be heard in the Sanctus as we approached the ‘Pleni sunt coeli’ section. Alas, it sounded more like a trick of the trade than a reading or communication of the text. There was no gainsaying, though, the outstanding level of execution. Warmly cultivated playing from concertmaster, Daniel Stabrawa – I wish violinists would not stand as if concerto soloists for this – was greatly to be admired, but did this feel in context as if it represented, even embodied, the descent of the Holy Ghost? Oddly, the music of the ‘Benedictus’ section sounded closer than I could recall hearing before to Die Zauberflöte. Beethoven as Mozart? Well, we can argue about that.

Darkness, even if again of a somewhat materialist conception, rightly haunted the opening of the Agnus Dei. Franz-Josef Selig’s solo seemed to speak with something close to perfection of both that darkness and the humanity that might emerge de profundis. A comparison with Sarastro would be indicative, but only if it involved contrast too: there is nothing of a noble yet flawed character to the music here. (The flaws obviously, I hope, refer to Sarastro, not to Mozart!) Once more, although Thielemann often looked as if he were about to pull the music around, he did not do so unduly; indeed, the sternness with which he conducted the Berlin strings was greatly to be admired in terms of potential meaning as well as executive accomplishment. There was no doubt that we were all, worthless sinners, to be on our knees here. The longed for unambiguous major chord, when it came, was treated to what I thought of as ‘fleeting length’: not indulgent, now, but provocative in a better, productive sense. What never quite materialised, though, was the cosmic scale to the later sounds of this movement. It was as if we had returned to the world of the Kyrie; even the terror of war sounded as if heard a little too much from afar, or even as a near-visual, ‘beautiful’ representation.

I was not overwhelmed, then, either by this microcosm, or by Thielemann’s Missa cosmogony. I do not doubt, and certainly do not mean to call into question, that he had considered what he was doing. Perhaps it was just not for me. I am not sure, though, that it was for Beethoven – whatever we mean by that – either. Still, it made me think, if more afterwards than at the time. I was led to think even about what it meant not to have been made to think. And then I returned to Adorno, and with the unquestionable egotism of a mere fallen human being, to something I had written in my first book (on Wagner’s Ring), towards its close:

Adorno was quite justified to claim that serious consideration of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis – perhaps the most enduringly enigmatic musical work yet written – could only result in its Brechtian alienation, in rupturing ‘the aura of unfocused veneration protectively surrounding it’. One of the greatest problems with respect to the Ring is that such rupture has become well-nigh impossible. To be aware of this is only a beginning, but better than nothing. We should remain grateful that the enigma of the Ring pales besides that of Beethoven’s work. If we could understand why Beethoven set the Mass, we should, Adorno claimed, understand the Missa Solemnis. Understanding why Wagner wrote the Ring and beginning to understand the work itself suddenly seem less forbidding prospects.

Until then, (impossible) retirement…

Mark Berry

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