Edinburgh Festival 97: International festival

CLASSICAL MUSIC Beethoven's `Missa Solemnis' (Philharmonia Orchestra / Michael Gielen) Usher Hall
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Michael Gielen's musical life spans much of the world. Nevertheless, he is an inheritor of the great Austro-German tradition, and you feel in his conducting the massive authority, the confidence, the august certainty of a lineage that includes Mahler, Furtwangler and Bruno Walter. The contrast with Valery Gergiev, who conducted the Rotterdam Philharmonic on the previous two evenings, could not be more complete; on one side nervous intensity, on the other mature self-assurance.

Gielen's Missa Solemnis with the Philharmonia on Sunday night rolled forward in immense waves, like majestic clouds unfolding in sunlight. He is a master, not only of towering choral edifices like the Kyrie of this work and the affirmative defiance of the Gloria, but of creeping slow tempi and weighty counterpoint, the Festival Chorus lifting their voices ever broader and higher, unflappable and untiring.

This was, in fact, an essentially traditional reading of the Mass. Everything was superbly achieved, but there were no surprises; in a manner of speaking, it was religious metaphor rather than religious act. You felt this particularly in the "Et incarnatus", where the whispered tones of the men were accompanied by a bell-like flute, leading to the darkly solid ensemble of the string band in the "Crucifixus" and a joyful outburst on "Et resurrexit", with a resounding rolled R. It was a consummate portrayal of the sacred story, full of imaginative colour and hidden optimism, but without mystery.

Gielen had the right forces for this sort of conception. The Philharmonia have returned to their best form, with a warm, glowing sound, a beautiful blend of wind tone and magnificent brass and horns. There was a particularly fine line-up of soloists. The soprano Jane Eaglen sings with a dazzling, pearly purity that makes one's spine tingle; the voice is angelic rather than physical. Jane Irwin was a strongly-coloured mezzo, compelling in the Agnus recitative.

The tenor, Thomas Moser, sounded spontaneous, impulsive, persuasive, gripped by a kind of youthful joy in the "Gratias". The noble baritone Alastair Miles was given little chance to shine; Beethoven places his solo in the Agnus in the worst part of the voice. The whole work is, after all, for divine voices rather than human, and even the semi-divine Eaglen tired a little towards the end.

It was a good idea to place the soloists behind the orchestra, just in front of the choir. The Festival Chorus contains some real voices, and the blend of the whole vocal group was ideal, the principals threading in and out of the texture, diving and surfacing in a flow of colour.

It was less justifiable to have the orchestral leader, Christopher Warren- Green, stand for the long violin solo in the Benedictus. Visually, it felt like a concerto; it was hard to feel the violin as a spiritual presence hovering on the edge of this rapturous vision.

This was a definitive and mature Missa Solemnis. It could scarcely be faulted, but maybe someone - Gergiev, perhaps - has a new conception of the piece lurking around the corner.