CD Choice: `It's God looking at humans scurrying about'

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The Independent Culture
THE PINNACLE of Beethoven's "late" creative phase in an historic performance that quite outshines a contemporaneous stereo studio recording that von Karajan made for EMI, also featuring the Vienna Singverein and that was recently reissued on the Testament label.

Here, there's weight, drive, great beauty of tone (especially among the strings) and a quartet of soloists that was rightly praised at the time as "boasting rare perfection". Austrian Radio's broadcast tape relates a fairly good mono sound-frame, better balanced in fact, than EMI's, though not as spacious.

Both sets include revealing rehearsal sequences. The opening "Kyrie" is broad and sonorous; the "Gloria" fiery in the extreme and the "Benedictus" graced by beautiful solo violin playing from Willi Boskovsky.

As to the "Agnus Dei", von Karajan's performance conjures precisely the sort of grim, warlike imagery that was suggested to me recently by another great conductor, and which seems appropriate to quote in this context. "The Missa is criticised because Beethoven inserts trumpets, drums and terror into the last movement," said Sir Colin Davis (the passage in question can be found on disc 2, track 4 of the von Karajan set, from 8 min 20 sec, then at 11 min 59 sec). "And there's that horrible fugue which, for me, is the fatuous preparations for war (from 11 min 17 sec). There are the scamperings to and fro; senseless, ant-like music.

"It's God looking at human beings scurrying about ..." - here he makes a diminutive gesture "... this size. Doing what? Simply destroying themselves. That's how I view this little piece of musical action and, of course, then I am investing it with a moral purpose. The music hangs in the air. All you hear is the word "Dona" (12 min 18 sec) which means `give us'.

But, you see, these people can't remember what they were going to ask for. And do you know what it was? Just peace - as if they didn't really know that!"

EMI's annotation is good, but Davis's is better.