Missa Solemnis / Royal Albert Hall, London

Proms 1997
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Traditional virtually dictates that the Proms should open with a grand choral work. Beethoven's Missa Solemnis is one of the grandest of them all. It's also one of the strangest. Earnest, fugal writing, or nearly formal "amens", can suddenly be broken up by wild fanfares or strange, dislocating harmonic progressions. The intense war and peace drama of the concluding Agnus Dei (martial trumpets and drums and pleading soprano solo) comes to an oddly formal, almost perfunctory close: a kind of full- orchestral "That's all folks!" The chorus is stretched to the limits again and again, as it is in the Ninth Symphony - only here the endurance test lasts nearly an hour and a half, not just 20 minutes.

In terms of endurance, Friday's First Night performers were well up to the task. The BBC Symphony Chorus were technically as solid as ever - wonderfully clear, precise entries, firm ensemble, minimal strain in the stratospheric heights of the Gloria and Credo. Apart from a badly fluffed trumpet entry in the Agnus Dei, the BBC Symphony Orchestra also stayed the course well. The solo team was excellently balanced, individually strong, and soprano Karita Mattila was the equal to anything Beethoven could hurl at her; she then managed to sound miraculously polished and pure in the testing Benedictus solo, a good three quarters of the way through the work. Conductor Bernard Haitink's control never wavered. He obviously sees this hugely diverse work as a whole. The long movements evolved with symphonic grandeur, and details all made sense. Interesting, too, to hear the violas playing with minimal vibrato in the Sanctus and Benedictus introductions - so, even this normally conservative conductor can bend a little towards those subversive period instrumentalists.

Intellectual conviction, technical security, interesting details - all to the good of course, but was it really enough? On the first page of the score, Beethoven wrote what amounts to a brief prayer: "From the heart, may it go to the heart!" The heart, for one, remained untouched. It's not enough to be impressed by the Missa Solemnis. A really successful performance - like Roger Norrington's, also in the Albert Hall, two years ago - can be startling, disturbing, exhilarating, deeply touching, however well you think you know the score. Take those fanfares in the Agnus Dei. These shouldn't just be colouristic or theatrical effects. In the right performance they can sound like Beethoven reliving the trauma of the Napoleonic bombardment of Vienna. The BBCSO's superb timpanist, John Chimes, threw himself into this with all his customary spirit and skill; in comparison the trumpets and horns seemed simply to go through the motions. Karita Mattila's response, "Give us peace", was strong and secure, but hardly anguished. The earth failed to move; the tingle-o-meter hardly twitched.

The final climax was perhaps the biggest disappointment of the evening. Other great moments were more effective, and there were lovely touches: for example, the flowing string and woodwind scales, like clouds of incense, in the surprise quiet ending of the Credo.

Have I been too hard? There's an opportunity to test your reactions against the mine this afternoon at 2.10pm when Radio 3 runs a repeat broadcast of the First Night - part of a new series of repeats that will cover just over half the Proms in this season. Listen, if you can, and judge for yourself.

Proms to 13 Sept. Booking: 0171-589 8212

Stephen Johnson

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