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There Is Something Peculiar about the Missa Solemnis

The Washington Choral Arts Society ChorusBeethoven. A composer on anybody’s “greatest” shortlist – both, overall and with regard to specific works. Among Beethoven’s heap of masterpieces, the composer thought his Missa Solemnis, op.123, to be the finest.

It is just about impossible to deny the Missa Solemnis its status of greatness. If the effect of a work so universally regarded is less than expected, one tends to question ones own ears, not the master. Or the performers.

There area few works with which I have such a curious relation: I know them to be “great” but they consistently elude me. Fidelio is one. And Don Giovanni I’ll happily concede to be the greatest opera ever written (not a particularly novel notion) but I’d much rather watch Le Nozze di Figaro or listen to Così fan tutte. While I have few qualms quibbling with other revered works (Brahms’ D Minor concerto – “a concerto with great music, but not a great concerto”, Brahms’ Deutsches Requiem - “episodic, bordering tedious”), I’d never dare say the same about the Missa. If I admire five superb choral pieces in it (some more than others), the work just never struck me as an even piece that could take me from start to finish on a long, glorious journey. No doubt due to a deficiency on my part.

Hearing the Choral Arts Society of Washington’s performance last Sunday was thus something of a revelation. To be sure, witnessing this particular work live makes a big difference already. (Like Bartók string quartets: They much prefer to be listened to live, also!) The quality of the chorus, the orchestra, and four very even soloists made for an experience that probably was more than the sum of its parts; coming together as it did under the careful and passionate hands of Norman Scribner.

I still think the works gets off to a slow start, but come the Gloria, which was especially moving toward the end (no wonder Beethoven adds a few additional exclamations of “Gloria” to the text), the mass was well under way to prove its ‘greatness’ to every last doubting soul in the well filled Kennedy Center Concert Hall. There was exemplary ensemble work of the four soloists in the Sanctus, there was the beautifully played violin solo in the ‘Benedictus’ section of the same movement (a choral violin concerto in its own right). Even the (long) Credo with its Dorian touches came to life.

Finally the Agnus Dei sets in with a shift from major to minor. It is an aggressively anguished section with its impatient, desperate plea for the mercy, compassion, and peace that reason demands and life so seldom provides. Here is no gentle asking for God having mercy on us, granting us peace. It’s almost an angry demand – the kind that comes toward the end of a life, with tears in the eyes and a large question mark pointing at heaven. The ‘war interludes’ that the timpani bring in (and take out) give more than a hint at the motivation for this kind of approach. And then (“dona nobis pacem – dona nobis pacem – dona nobis pacem”) comes the plea again. Resigned now and exhausted and beautifully tender. A treasure to take away from the work and move all who hear it.

Other Reviews:

Stephen Brookes, Choral Arts Society (Washington Post, November 7)
The WChASoc orchestra put in an excellent, engaged performance, backed by the superb choir. None of the soloists (Kelley Nassief – soprano, Stacey Rishoi – mezzo, Paul Austin Kelly – tenor, Gary Releya – bass) were outstanding, but all were very fine; the females dominating their male partners a little. Ms. Rishoi warmed up as the work went on and started to project her low notes better and better (and was thus no longer ‘lost’ among the other voices), Mr. Kelly produced beautiful tones steadily from the Kyrie to the last “pacem” (an impressive achievement for any tenor in this work), Ms. Nassief was clear-voiced and always pleasant to listen to, Mr. Releya served his part dutifully and reliably.

An informative and entertaining post-concert talk between Maestro Scribner and Robert Aubry Davis went some way in showing that none of my ideas about the work are original, at all. But then I can behind a quote (out of context, of course) from their discussion: “Everything important has already been said before”. Better to unwittingly repeat than fail trying to be novel.