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Second Opinion: Beethoven's Operatic Missa Solemnis

"There is, of course, among musicians an underground tradition of critical reserve" about Ludwig van Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, as Theodor Adorno once observed. People may think of it as a glorious monument because of its length and intensity, even if they are not really all that familiar with it. Beethoven worked on this piece for a long time, and perhaps because of all that labor, it sometimes feels labored. Many conductors juice the faster parts, like the exultant sections of the Gloria, so that the whole piece does not die on the vine, which one risks in a performance is dragged out much beyond seventy minutes. While the Missa Solemnis uses the words of the Latin Ordinary, albeit in a rather untraditional way, it is really not a liturgical work in any sense of the word. It was inspired by the elevation of Archduke Rudolph of Austria, Beethoven's pupil and most supportive patron, to the rank of Archbishop of Olmütz, but it was not completed until a couple years after the archbishop's elevation and never had a complete premiere in Vienna during the composer's lifetime, something it finally did get, only after some trouble, in St. Petersburg.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis is an entertaining challenge for NSO and Eschenbach (Washington Post, November 2)

Robert R. Reilly, Cor ad cor loquitur: NSO and the Missa Solemnis (Ionarts, November 3)

Mike Paarlberg, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis at the Kennedy Center (Washington City Paper, November 3)

John van Rhein, Haitink's CSO 'Missa Solemnis' achieves eloquence through directness (Chicago Tribune, October 26)

Andrew Patner, Haitink, CSO, chorus, soloists go to the heart in ‘Missa solemnis’ (Chicago Sun-Times, October 26)

Lawrence A. Johnson, Haitink’s spacious approach reaches the summit with CSO in Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis” (Chicago Classical Review, October 26)

Lauren Moraski, Lost Beethoven hymn uncovered, performed for first time in 192 years (CBS News, October 26)

Martin Kettle, Monteverdi Choir/ORR/Gardiner (The Guardian, October 18)

Andrew Clark, Monteverdi Choir, Barbican, London (Financial Times, October 21)
Christoph Eschenbach, in his first performance of the work with the National Symphony Orchestra (and the ensemble's first since 1998, under Robert Shaw), embraced the piece's operatic qualities. Heard at the second performance on Saturday night, Eschenbach's forces exaggerated the bursts of dynamic contrast in the Kyrie, half earnest pleading, half hysterical shriek, followed by the ecstatic Gloria rendered in a headlong rush. His choral forces, the full expanse of the Choral Arts Society of Washington, thrilled with an amplitude of sound even at the peaks of Beethoven's outrageous range demands, murmured warmly when required, and communicated the text more than clearly, in a mostly German pronuncation of the Latin (really too fussy about consonants in many places -- the affected initial K of the opening Kyries played in the house like a stuttered "K-K-K-K-Kyrie"). The quartet of soloists, placed in the midst of the chorus but with the wall of the chorister balcony behind them for acoustic support, projected out into the hall quite clearly. Mezzo-soprano Iris Vermillion was the most consistently smooth and full in sound, with some beautifully light contributions from tenor Richard Croft, both overshadowing the less-present bass of Kwangchul Youn. Soprano Erin Wall, who had sung the work under Bernard Haitink in Chicago only the previous week, had a soaring sound but started to give out slightly in the Agnus Dei.

Almost every section of the piece shows Beethoven thinking not in terms of liturgical text but in quasi-operatic vignettes: the boisterous "Credo, credo" song refrain of the middle movement, the martial interludes of battle sounds in the Agnus Dei, which has the feel of an operatic finale. The repetition of words and phrases, in ways that obviate the meaning of the text, abound, like the word Gloria returning in a shout at the end of the Gloria, or the Benedictus music and its words returning after the second Osanna refrain. So much of the piece is extremely dense, with two big fugues ending with booming pedal points, lots of bombast, and Eschenbach gave it all the oomph he could get, keeping the orchestra in control to emphasize the sound of the chorus. (The organ part was rendered on a rented instrument, not the pipes of the new Concert Hall organ.) Not surprisingly, for such a loud and complicated work, the most effective moments are in the small Sanctus movement, with its somber opening and mysterious harmonies. A lush orchestral interlude introduces the strangest and most wonderful moment in the Missa Solemnis, when a solo violin descends at the chanted words of the Benedictus, escorted on the wings of the two flutes, fluttering just underneath the violin. It is a striking thing in the score, to see most of the vast instrumentation cleared away, and the three voices moving in what used to be called fauxbourdon, or what tonal theorists call a series of triads in first inversion. Concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef, standing for this long solo, left me stranded on a cloud by the intensity and yet simplicity of her playing.

This week's National Symphony Orchestra concerts (November 8 to 10) will feature music by Richard Strauss and Dvořák, as well as three different Beethoven piano concertos over the three concerts, played by Lang Lang, who is in residence with the NSO all this week.

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