Many thanks to Robert R. Reilly for this review from The Kennedy Center.
On Thursday evening, November 1, Christoph Eschenbach, the National Symphony Orchestra, the Choral Arts Society of Washington, and soloists performed Ludwig van Beethoven’s Missa solemnis at the Kennedy Center.
The Missa solemnis was written for the installation of Archduke Rudolph of Austria as Archbishop of Olmütz (now Olomouc). Archduke Rudolph had been Beethoven’s main patron and a pupil. Beethoven had once written to him that, “There is nothing higher than to approach the Godhead more nearly than other mortals and by means of that contact to spread the rays of the Godhead through the human race.”
The Missa solemnis was one of the works in which Beethoven attempted to do this. He said, “My chief aim was to awaken and permanently instill religious feelings, not only into the singers but also into the listeners.” This intention may make some contemporary listeners wary, as they might prefer not to attend church in a concert hall. They may rest assured that Beethoven also inscribed on the front first page of the score: “Von Herzen – Möge es wieder – zu Herzen gehen!” or “From the heart: may it reach the heart.” Or as churchmen say, Cor ad cor loquitur.
Incidentally there was nothing liturgical about conductor Christoph Eschenbach’s performance of the Missa solemnis. Rather, he delivered a full-throated operatic performance of great warmth that took to heart Beethoven’s inscription without losing sight of the ultimate aim of making the transcendent perceptible. Everyone sang – not only the soloists and chorus, but the orchestra as well, from the heart. The vocal writing for instruments in this Missa is explicit when it comes to the violin solo writing in the Sanctus, which forms a quintet with the vocal quartet, but it is apparent throughout. The conductor made this clear from the beginning with the highly expressive playing he drew from the players the National Symphony Orchestra.
Eschenbach seemed to indulge in some slight ritards in the Kyrie to enhance its expressiveness, but then took off like a rocket in the Gloria, which was magnificent. The Choral Arts Society of Washington sang with vigor and finesse, never more so than in the choral Credo portion of the Incarnatus est, which was exquisitely shaded. The diminuendo at Et sepultus est ended in a combined pianissimo with the orchestra that was breathtaking.
The soloists, soprano Erin Wall, mezzo-soprano Iris Vermillion, tenor Richard Croft, and bass Kwangchul Youn all had distinctive voices, were well matched, and blended in the quartets. They were placed in the middle of the chorus but rarely had any trouble projecting from that position. Soprano Wall easily soared over everyone and not in an ostentatious way. Kwangchul Youn, for some reason, chose not to display the full force of his considerable bass until the Sanctus.
There were minor discombobulations that are inevitable in a live performance of so complex and demanding a work as this, especially on an opening night performance, but for anyone who had come for the music, rather than the performance, they were nothing in light of what was achieved.
The program is repeated later tonight, Saturday, November 3rd. RRR