Whatever happened to Beethoven's Missa Solemnis? There was a time when the most fervent Beethovenians quailed at the prospect of this grandest conception of his last years. The score seemed so ineffable in its vision; so heterodox in its mix of liturgical, theatrical and personal elements; so raw and volatile in its sound and working-out; and so sheerly difficult to sing and play with any consistency that only the incandescent drive of a Toscanini, or the granitic grip of a Klemperer, could even begin to bring it off.
If something of the old danger and strangeness seems to have gone out of the work more recently, this is doubtless partly due to increasingly frequent performance, rising technical standards and, perhaps, a certain "cutting down to size" by the vogue for "authenticity". As Sir John Eliot Gardiner eased a nicely balanced quartet of soloists, the 36-voice Monteverdi Choir, and the 60 "period" players of his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique into the opening "Kyrie" of their most recent Barbican performance, the textures seemed to approach an almost Brahmsian safeness.
But, as he approaches 60, Sir John is mellowing. Something of his old incisiveness was to be heard in the (not entirely unanimous) pistol-shot choral attacks on the word "kyrie"; in the slightly pert articulation of the "et vitam venturi saeculi" episode of the "Credo"; and in the brazen letting-rip of period horns in the work's many "heaven-storming" onrushes. Yet tempi and interpretation, for the most part, were relatively ample, even "traditional", and, as such, challenged the finest such performance this pair of ears has heard in recent decades: that of Nikolaus Harnoncourt in the 1998 Proms.
It was Harnoncourt's ability to make musical sense of the most apparently arbitrary, or fragmentary, inner parts of Beethoven's textures, and to relate detail to the whole, that impressed on that occasion. Compared with the numinous depth he found in the "praeludium" passage of the "Sanctus", which sets up the descent of high violin and cool flutes of the "Benedictus", Gardiner's handling of the passage seemed prosaic.
Yet he effectively encompassed the ominous tread of the "Agnus Dei", and the unsettling alternations of pastoral and martial episodes of the "Dona Nobis Pacem", with affecting contributions from all four soloists: Luba Orgonasova, soprano, Nathalie Stutzmann, contralto, Christoph Prégardien, tenor, and Alastair Miles, bass. Meanwhile, the newly clarified Barbican acoustics pungently enhanced the timbre and, occasionally, the idiosyncratic intonation, of the period winds. Whatever else one may expect from a performance of this work's unfathomable conception, this amounted to a finely articulated account of its dramatic structure.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies