United Kingdom Beethoven: Camilla Tilling (soprano), Sasha Cooke (mezzo-soprano), Toby Spence (tenor) Luca Pisaroni (bass-baritone), London Symphony Chorus, London Symphony Orchestra / Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor), Barbican Hall, Barbican Centre, London, 20.5.2018. (AS)
Beethoven – Missa solemnis, Op.123
The Missa solemnis is known to be a work that is feared by both solo singers and choruses because of the technical demands it makes on them. The soloists get little chance to shine individually, and they have to work well together in ensemble. On this occasion they did, outstandingly well, and it would be pointless to name any one individual, so successfully did they work as a team. The London Symphony Chorus is at the forefront of the capital’s amateur choral bodies, trained by chorus director Simon Halsey, but prepared on this occasion by a guest director, Gavin Carr. The choral singing was technically first-rate, even when the ensemble was put under severe technical pressure, or when the sopranos had to reach for the high notes unreasonably demanded of them by Beethoven.
The orchestra gets little chance to shine either, though there is an extended violin solo in the Benedictus section of the Sanctus. It was a thoughtful gesture on the part of Lennox Mackenzie, the Sub-Leader of the orchestra, to give Carmine Lauri, the Co-Leader occupying the Leader’s chair on this occasion, an encouraging pat on the arm and a smile before he embarked on his rather lonely journey. Somehow this epitomised the corporate spirit at large in the playing and singing. All concerned seemed to be joining together to create a performance in which personalities were not projected, but where everybody was united in striving to realise Beethoven’s mighty inspiration effectively.
For this sense of togetherness the conductor Michael Tilson Thomas was of course responsible. He clearly has a total grasp of the work’s structure, its intellectual properties and its spiritual nature. Every section of the work seemed to be brought to life in a way that was just as it should be, on this occasion, at least. Other conductors have projected their own personalities on this music to good or bad effect, but Tilson Thomas seemed simply to be concerned with letting its greatness emerge to best effect. It was a thoroughly selfless demonstration of the conductor’s art at its best, and no more than that needs to be said or written.