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Ludwig van Beethoven byJoseph Karl Stieler (1781-1858) [Source: Wikipedia]
08 Sep 2011

Prom 67: Beethoven, Mass in D major, op.123

I shall not beat about the bush: this was a great performance.

Prom 67: Beethoven, Mass in D major, op.123

Helena Juntunen (soprano); Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano); Paul Groves (tenor); Matthew Rose (bass); London Philharmonic Choir (chorus-master: Neville Creed); London Symphony Chorus (chorus-master: Joseph Cullen); London Symphony Orchestra; Sir Colin Davis (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, Sunday, 4 September 2011.

Above: Ludwig van Beethoven byJoseph Karl Stieler (1781-1858) [Source: Wikipedia]


It seems to me inconceivable that I shall not look back in my dotage — assuming that I shall have one — and remember Sir Colin Davis conducting the Missa Solemnis at the Proms. Partly that must be a matter of my personal and, I flatter myself, intellectual obsession with the work. Furtwängler considered it Beethoven’s greatest work; if pushed, so do I. But its greatness is not that of Mozartian perfection: it lies in what, along with the late string quartets, must surely constitute Beethoven’s greatest challenge, both for himself and for us. It is both symphonic and, as Sir Colin points out in a brief programme interview, a work that, ‘constructed word for word … doesn’t lend itself to symphonic treatment’. The Mass both affirms and doubts — does it even deny? — belief in God, as a setting of the liturgy. It stands both as an affirmation, monumental and personal, in humanity, and a shattering demonstration of its nothingness in the face of the Almighty. Beethoven’s setting is both utterly characteristic in its strenuousness of purpose and strangely un-Beethovenian in other ways (something I have promised myself I shall think more closely about after several other projects: in the meantime, I shall refer the reader to Adorno). It is also well-nigh unperformable; Furtwängler simply stopped performing it. Indeed, a Furtwängler Missa Solemnis must be the ultimate fantasy recording; alas, it seems that it will remain a fantasy. We have Klemperer, though, in many ways a more meaningful dialectical antithesis to Furtwängler than the incomprehensibly venerated band-master Toscanini. And now we have Davis.

There was a special warmth to the applause Sir Colin received upon mounting the podium, a warmth that in London I otherwise only associate with Bernard Haitink. (The two conductors’ status as former Music Directors of the Royal Opera House, and their accomplishments in that post, doubtless has something to do with it, though Davis’s work with the London Symphony Orchestra may rank higher still in audience and critical esteem.) But this is not a conductor to be flattered, nor, crucially, to manufacture some easy, false sense of ‘excitement’. Beethoven’s opening bars thus resounded with spacious expectancy, as far removed from the idiocies of ‘period’ fashion as could be imagined. Indeed, there was a tentative moment of ensemble that suggested the orchestra, which has recently been performing Beethoven with Sir John Eliot Gardiner, might not quite be attuned to Davis’s reading. The moment was over in the twinkling of an eye, however, and it would, I think, be the sole criticism I could muster of a magnificent performance from the LSO. The massed ranks of the London Symphony Chorus and London Philharmonic Choir sounded quite staggering in heft, unity, and clarity, once again proving a nonsense of the claim sometimes heard that only small choirs can permit of contrapuntal or even homophonic clarity. And the soloists — first of all, soprano, mezzo, and tenor — sounded a voice for us, for frail humanity. One knew that this was intended, and believed in: by Beethoven, by the conductor, and indeed by the singers themselves. (Davis again: ‘You may not believe it immediately afterwards, but it [the work] doesn’t survive unless everybody is committed to it.’) The soloists’ echoing of the chorus upon ‘Christe’ intensified the sense of cosmological struggle — and this in the ‘Kyrie’, only the first, and arguably most ‘normal’ movement. Kettledrums sounded implacable throughout, as if intoning Holy Writ, or even trying to persuade us of it. Truth, then, shone from every bar: there was a real sense that the Lord might, just might, grant us that mercy besought in the liturgy.

Nothing, though, had prepared me for the opening of the ‘Gloria’ — which is as it should be. It came like an explosion, a thunderbolt even, with the kind of electricity that Furtwängler himself used to impart to Beethoven, and few, very few, others have succeeded in eliciting since; it was as if the heavenly throng itself were singing the Almighty’s praises. I wondered whether Paul Groves was a little on the ‘operatic’ side during the ‘Gratias’ section, or at least not sufficiently Germanic in style, and one could have wished for greater resonance from Matthew Rose. But any such minor doubts were soon overtaken by the titanic, orchestrally-founded strength upon which we heard the choral ‘Domine Deus, Rex cœlestis’. Hints of Mozartian Harmoniemusik upon ‘Domine Fili unigenite Jesu Christe’ were gratefully received, but we were never in doubt that the Mozartian paradise had been lost for ever, woodwind in the ‘Qui tollis’ section now recognisable from the travails of the Ninth Symphony. Once again Beethovenian sincerity shone as a light through the performance, the imploring ‘Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris, miserere nobis’ signalling the composer kneeling. (And there is clearly only one person, or force, before whom or which Beethoven would ever kneel.) The ‘Quoniam’ captured to perfection that precarious balance, or rather dialectic, between certainty and uncertainty or downright despair, whilst the close of the movement recaptured the electricity of its opening. If the soloists’ final Amen sent shivers down the spine, the final choral shout of ‘Gloria’ went beyond anything I can even attempt to express in words.

The opening calls of ‘Credo’ announced the battle royal that lies at the heart of the work, the struggle of belief itself. ‘Credo quia absurdum’ (a perennial misquotation of Tertullian)? Davis seemed here heavily to lean towards Klemperer’s Nietzschean ‘immoralism’. (One imagines Furtwängler would have given a very different impression, but who knows?) And crucially, there was a true sense of plainsong and Renaissance polyphony sounding through history, if not eternity. When Christ, as the liturgy has it, for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, he certainly did in performance, and with what majesty: I thought momentarily of the Advent hymn, ‘Lo, he comes with clouds descending’. The echoes of early music — in the best rather than the modish sense — sounded still more clearly upon hearing of the mystery of the Incarnation, as did the wonder of the human soloists and Gareth Davies’s transcendent flute. Groves emerged triumphant, or perhaps better as a true celebrant, intoning the climactic ‘Et homo factus est’, the Christian miracle of God become man. Likewise, one felt, almost as if in a Bach Passion, the unbearable agony of Gethsemane and Golgotha upon the word of suffering, ‘Passus’, Beethoven’s profoundest compassion expressed for Christ as man, evoking Fidelio, and yet, extending far beyond even Fidelio. The choral tenors’ shout of Resurrection, the sheer joy of Easter, reaffirmed hope that might have been lost. And yet, strain, partly a consequence of Beethoven’s notorious vocal writing, remained: does he, do we, believe? The uphill sense of struggle, almost a literal expression of ‘ascendit’ and yet of course meaning so much more than that, was valiantly, movingly expressed in the ‘Allegro molto’ section, until we returned to ‘Credo’, in this case, belief in the Holy Ghost. There was a sense of arrival, but also, strongly, that this was but the first foothill in our ascent. I was particularly impressed at the virtually flawless delivery of the sopranos’ cruel soft, high lines upon the words ‘Et vitam venturi saeculi’. (Listen to Karajan’s Wiener Singverein should you wish to hear how poorly even a professional chorus can shape up to Beethoven’s demands.) By now, there was a sense of lid being kept on, prior to explosion. And so it came to pass, the movement ending with Klemperian inevitability.

Beethoven marked the Sanctus ‘Mit Andacht’ (‘with devotion’), which is just what we heard, trombones sounding their aequale across the Habsburg centuries. Davis’s mastery of transition was heard to great effect in the difficult section prefacing the calls of ‘Pleni sunt coeli’. The choruses once again sounded as if an angelic host: awe-inspiring, truly thrilling. And then, that extraordinary paradox: the ‘Praeludium’, in which the orchestra sounds almost more like an organ than an organ does (the organ part itself elsewhere being taken excellently by Catherine Edwards). Beethoven’s power of suggestion reminded me here of an instance in the E major piano sonata, op.14 no.1, in which he somehow manages to suggest portamento, writing a passage that would never work as the real thing on the violin. What spiritual inwardness, though, was expressed here: a mystery awaiting revelation, for which the LSO’s lower strings unerringly prepared us, ‘Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini’. Whilst the vocal contribution to the ‘Benedictus’ section was extraordinarily fine, Sarah Connolly’s richness of tone an especial marvel here, and Helena Juntunen, a late replacement for Carmen Giannattasio, also excellent, there was, alas, something of a disappointment to be endured from the all-too-secular sounding violin solo from Gordan Nikolitch. (It sounded and looked like a concerto: I cannot believe that it was a wise decision to have him stand.) That was a pity, but we were soon reconciled in true Handelian grandeur — or what used to be Handelian grandeur before the composer’s capture by ‘authenticity’ — of the ‘Hosanna’.

Finally, the ‘Agnus Dei’. Here, Rose impressed, dolorous and at times desperate, the other soloists responding in kind. The horrors of war — human reality as opposed to the human ideal? — terrified without lapsing into the grotesque, as so often they do; I have rarely heard them so integrated into the musical argument, save once again for readings by Klemperer. And there was again a properly Handelian sturdiness to the ‘Dona nobis pacem’. Whether or no there be an actual quotation from Messiah, and it is too readily forgotten just how greatly Beethoven revered Handel, it certainly sounded as if the resemblance to ‘And he shall reign’ was intentional. The performance was crowned, though it was too late, for we had been taken to the abyss. ‘Pacem’? Perhaps. In fact, probably not, for this was the most desolate conclusion to the work I have ever heard: desolate, and yet retaining a nobility which might remain our sole hope of peace.

Mark Berry

Click here for access to audio and video recordings of this performance.

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