Sunday, October 23, 2011

Missa Solemnis: Beethoven with Sir Colin Davis and the LSO

"Even as I apologize for my bad handwriting, I ask God to pour his blessings richly on Yr Highness' head. Your new career, which is so concerned with the love of humankind, is surely one of the finest [schönsten], and Yr Highness is sure to be one of the finest examples--in secular or spiritual affairs--in it." --Beethoven writing to the Archduke Rudolph, 3 March 1819.

In preparing for Friday night's concert with the London Symphony Orchestra, I read about the work's genesis (Beethoven was a writer of surprisingly entertaining letters,) happily cycled through recordings, and dutifully consulted the Cambridge handbook. Then I went, and lost myself in sound: sound solemn and exultant, earthy and sublime, reconciling those apparent dichotomies in a way unmistakably Beethoven's own. This was my first time hearing the LSO live, and I was impressed by their clean, full sound and by the grace with which details emerged from the whole. The orchestra seemed keenly attuned to Davis' impassioned conducting. Despite very deliberate tempi, the energy of the piece never flagged. The contrasts built by Beethoven between the movements, and even between sections of movements, were emphasized, but these contrasting parts came together to form a magnificently coherent whole.

This having been my first time hearing the Missa Solemnis live, I can't compare it to other recent readings, but I was extraordinarily impressed both by the gandeur of the piece--created by the sheer size of its forces, the gravity of its purpose--and by the gorgeous simplicity at its heart. The London Symphony Chorus, prepared by Joseph Cullen, sang with fine sensitivity to text, and great emotional power. Among the soloists, I found only soprano Helena Juntunen slightly disappointing. She did not seem as attuned to the text or to the distinct moods of the different movements as her colleagues, and I found her mannerisms somewhat distracting. Paul Groves used his bright tenor well, communicating nuance through fine diction and phrasing rather than varied coloring; tenderness and boldness were both at his command. It was my first time hearing Matthew Rose live, and I was enormously impressed. He has a rich, supple, and powerful bass, which he wielded with great sensitivity. That Sarah Connolly was excellent is not, in itself, surprising, but she was so perfectly attuned to the musical moment that each phrase felt like a revelation. Her full, dark mezzo might have been created for the "Sanctus." The performance as a whole felt like a gift. I often deplore the excessive readiness of New York audiences to give standing ovations, but on Friday night, I was one of the first on my feet.


  1. There's also that letter by Beethoven in which he explains that he was *this* close to naming this work The Decolletage Solemnis.

  2. you all who read this might help a little the Brno opera house (Brno in the Czech Republic) by sharing this link about the problem.

    Sorry to bother you with this.


  3. @DTO That would account for the unexplained delays in completing it--debates about the title! Dress in NYC was a nice dusky purple but a very similar cut.

    @asperias I've been spreading the word on Twitter; fingers crossed!


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