Sir John Eliot Gardiner directs a sublime Missa solemnis at Berlin’s Musikfest

GermanyGermany Musikfest Berlin 2022 [2] – Beethoven: Lucy Crowe (soprano), Anna Hallenberg (mezzo-soprano), Giovanni Sala (tenor), William Thomas (bass), Monteverdi Choir, Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique / Sir John Eliot Gardiner (conductor). Philharmonie Hall, Berlin, 31.8.2022, and live-streamed on Digital Concert Hall. (GT)

Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducts Beethoven’s Missa solemnis © Fabian Schellhorn

Beethoven – Missa solemnis in D major, Op.123

Berlin’s Musikfest this year is playing host this year to some of the world’s finest musicians and ensembles, both in chamber and orchestral concerts with an admirable contrast between both great and less well-known works by contemporary composers. In this year afflicted by war on European soil, it is fitting that we have the opportunity of hearing music from little-known Ukrainian composers such as Myroslav Skoryk and Valentin Silvestrov.

Hence it is appropriate that the second concert at the Philharmonie presents one of the greatest sacred works in the repertoire. The structure of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis is frequently thought of being his Tenth symphony, as is the Violin concerto, with its five great movements with instrumental openings and the textual ideas in each movement.

The sublime nature of the grand opening Kyrie – in the three D major chords – offered a melancholy idiom, which transferred to a more humble and stately expression as the choir wondrously sang ‘Kyrie eleison’ repeated by the four soloists. There was a wonderful solo from the oboe bringing a sublime beauty that was exemplified by the brass group and all four singers – who were placed to the left of the chorus and in front of the double basses – and organ continuo. The most beautiful contribution was in a gorgeous solo passage from soprano Lucy Crowe prior to the solemnity of the mixed chorus that rose to a culmination and then into silence. The Gloria opened powerfully on the timpani amid the women’s impassioned voices, ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo’. Through the quickly fluctuating textures and melodies we heard an extraordinary passage on two clarinets, alongside the violas and cellos and then the Italian tenor Giovanni Sala’s stunning cadence. Here the strings were impressive in a very inspiring sequence of great orchestral playing, underlined by the male chorus in their magnificent singing of joy and jubilation.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducts the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique © Fabian Schellhorn

The Credo opened on a two-note motif with darkly rich trombones and the voices of the men’s’ chorus and then enhanced by the women’s voices, supported by the wonderful harmony of the flutes in a revelatory sequence of music making. This was matched by the soprano and tenor in fine expressive characterisations of the ‘Crucifix’, and magnificent choral singing, which was suitably buoyant. We heard another uplifting solo on the oboe, accompanied by sublime harmonies from the women’s choir. There was a remarkable passage of tremendous singing – in the intensity and emotion from the four singers – especially from Crowe in ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu in gloria Dei Patris. Amen’ – before the voices disappeared into silence once more.

The Sanctus opened with a prelude on the bassoon and low strings, and then we heard the refined sound of the solo violin alongside the soft voices of the chorus and then the four singers in an the ethereally beautiful Benedictus, and a blissful violin solo from John Hanson, and the clarinets in a virtuous passage (‘Osanna in excelsis’) that sounded as if from another world.

The Agnus Dei opened on the horns, violins, bassoon, and now we heard the charming bass of William Thomas, the fabulous voices of the women’s choir, and Crowe’s ardently charged supplication as the trumpets sounded. There was a heartening passage against the subdued strings, while ‘Dona pacem’ was intoned by the voices of the soloists, and the chorus gave ‘Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem’ a fervent radiance to bring everything to a glorious conclusion.

The composer wrote that his Missa solemnis was ‘from the heart – may it return – to the heart!’ Most importantly, the key to this masterpiece is in Beethoven’s appeal in the final movement – ‘dona nobis pacem’ (‘grant us peace’) – that is particularly poignant at this time. This was a tremendous performance in which soloists, chorus, and every group of the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique played their part, no less so than under the inspired direction of Sir John Eliot Gardiner.

Gregor Tassie

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