10 March 2010

CD REVIEW: Ludwig van Beethoven – MISSA SOLEMNIS (Kölner Rundfunkchor, Chor des Norddeutschen Rundfunks, Kölner Rundfunk-Sinfonie Orchester, Otto Klemperer; Medici Arts)

Beethoven: MISSA SOLEMNIS (Otto Klemperer; Medici Arts MM015-2)

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770 – 1827) – Missa solemnis in D major, Op. 123: A. Kupper, S. Wagner, R. Schock, J. Greindl; Kölner Rundfunkchor, Chor des Norddeutschen Rundfunks; Kölner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester; Otto Klemperer [recorded in Saal 1, Funkhaus, WDR Köln, on 6 June 1955; Medici Arts MM015-2]

Every perusal of the international classical CD catalogues seems to reveal another interesting and potentially revelatory performance salvaged from murky oblivion by the enterprising work of independent labels throughout the world.  The lightning-paced restoration of forgotten Baroque works to currency by the release of meticulously-prepared new recordings is finally giving way somewhat to the reissue of nearly-forgotten recordings of standard-repertory works.  This, in a way, is a more dangerous undertaking for a record label: every serious music lover already owns a personal favorite recording of any particular towering masterwork and very likely several more besides, and the novice is likely to be steered in a maiden voyage into a work’s discography by famous names and reputations.  A disc like Medici Arts’ current release of Otto Klemperer’s 1955 Kölner Rundfunk performance of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis faces stiff interrogation.  From connoisseurs, there inevitably is the question of whether one really needs another Klemperer Missa solemnis in one’s collection.  For the consumer coming to the work for the first time, there are at least a dozen more recent and more promoted recordings that say from their places on the store shelf, ‘Buy me.’

Nearly two centuries after its 1824 premiere, a measure of promotion is perhaps needed for Beethoven’s Missa solemnis itself, performances of which are sadly rare in the United States.  The score’s requirements are undeniably formidable, beyond the abilities of many amateur choral societies and soloists, but there are underlying issues that make the Missa what modern sensibilities might term a ‘difficult’ piece.  Theologically-minded critics argue that the Missa’s liturgical legitimacy is suspect, and musicians cringe at the demands made upon their talents by Beethoven’s score.  Performers who take on the challenge of the Missa are faced with the decision concerning whether it is essentially a work of faith to be approached with reverence or a concert piece to be given the no-holds-barred festival treatment.  Perhaps among Teutonic musical institutions the two concepts are not so inherently opposite as they appear to American ensembles.  Not unlike any of Händel’s finest oratorios or Bach’s Matthäus-Passion, the Missa in a committed performance evokes religious fervor solely through the grandeur of the music: it is impossible to avoid contemplating the sacred context of Beethoven’s work no matter how pedantically the performers strive at keeping the music earthbound and expressive of merely a secular achievement.  Beethoven himself considered the Missa solemnis the pinnacle of his art, and for that alone it is worthy of respect and study.  It is the score in which Beethoven’s symphonies, concerti, chamber music, and even Fidelio merge: for that, it is remarkable and, whatever the complications of its grand scale and dogmatic associations, indescribably important in both Beethoven’s development as a composer and the history of Western choral music.

It is foremost the majesty of the Missa solemnis that Otto Klemperer conveys so compellingly in this 1955 performance for broadcast over Kölner Rundfunk (later to become WDR), as well as the 1951 Vox recording with the Wiener Symphoniker and the widely-acclaimed 1965 studio recording for EMI.  His work becoming frequently-recorded only in the autumn of his career, when both age and illness affected his conducting, Maestro Klemperer has a far-reaching but not altogether fair reputation for unduly slow tempi that can, in the worst cases, undermine even his most profound intentions.  The famed studio recording of Messiah on EMI can, on first hearing, seem to take longer for Maestro Klemperer’s performance to play out than was required for Händel to compose the score, for instance.  Maestro Klemperer’s pacing of the Missa solemnis varied by some eight minutes from the time of his first recorded performance (the 1951 Vox recording; 72:00) to that of the EMI studio recording and the Royal Festival Hall performance that preceded it (available via the BBC broadcast on the Testament label; 80:00).  The 1955 Kölner Rundfunk performance requires slightly more than seventy-five minutes, a timing similar to those in extant performances conducted by Erich Kleiber, Eugene Ormandy, and Bruno Walter, and to the remarkable 1937 Leeds Town Hall performance conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham.  The way in which Maestro Klemperer proves equal and in some cases superior to his most celebrated rivals is his affinity for not just preserving but lovingly highlighting the clarity of the inner voices in Beethoven’s dense writing, not least in the complex fugal passages.  Maestro Klemperer achieves this, perhaps most perceptibly in this 1955 performance, not by adopting the pinpoint articulation brought to the music by period-practice adherents like Sir John Eliot Gardiner and Nikolaus Harnoncourt but by employing tempi that enable realization of both the weight and the intricacy of Beethoven’s part-writing.

Throughout this performance, Maestro Klemperer’s approach is brought to life eloquently by the Köln singers and players.  Supplemented by the Chor des Norddeutschen Rundfunks, the Kölner Rundfunkchor – now the WDR Rundfunkchor Köln – sing with the security and tonal forthrightness that exemplify the Germanic choral tradition at its best.  The sopranos and tenors are especially fearless in the passages that take them into their highest registers, singing not just with poise but with passion like what the La Scala chorus of a similar time might have brought to the Verdi Requiem.  Latin pronunciation among both choristers and soloists is unabashedly Germanic as was common at that time, before the influx of Renaissance and Baroque works during the height of the period-practice movement pushed even German-speaking performers towards Italianate patterns of pronunciation.  The Kölner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester (now the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln) play with imperturbable professionalism, occasionally yielding pride of place in terms of precision of ensemble to more famous orchestras but lacking nothing in spirit or the dedication with which they follow Maestro Klemperer’s direction.  The violinist who plays the breathtakingly beautiful solo in the Preludium to the Benedictus, Helmut Zernick (a gifted player who, in 1952, gave a beautiful performance of Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto with Arthur Rother and the Berlin Radio Orchestra), brings refreshing naturalness to his performance, which only threatens to become overly sentimental.  Choristers and players alike distinguish themselves with performances that are worthy of Beethoven’s music and Maestro Klemperer’s conducting of it.

Maestro Klemperer’s soloists for the 1955 performance are less obviously starry than those of the EMI studio recording (Elisabeth Söderström, Marga Höffgen, Waldemar Kmentt, and Martti Talvela) but are, in fact, more closely integrated as a quartet.  Soprano Annelies Kupper (1906 – 1987), like Maestro Klemperer born in Breslau (the capital of Lower Silesia that is now Wrocław, Poland), was admired for her work in Mozart, Wagner, and Strauss roles and was a celebrated Aida auf Deutsch (recorded opposite the Radamès of Max Lorenz for Kurt Schröder and Frankfurt Radio).  In this performance, Ms. Kupper effectively strives to sing purely, minimizing the edge her tone could have when singing dramatic operatic roles.  Her mastery of the role of the Contessa in Mozart’s Nozze di Figaro prepared her well for the occasionally florid demands of Beethoven’s music, and she is little strained by her ascent to top C on the phrase ‘Benedictus in qui venit nomine Domini’ in the Benedictus.  Contralto Sieglinde Wagner (1921 – 2003, and of no relation to Richard Wagner) was a fine singer whose concert repertory prominently featured both large- and small-scaled choral works by Johann Sebastian Bach, and her richness of voice serves her well in this performance.  There are moments of suspect pitch and sluggishness in Ms. Wagner’s performance, but it is refreshing to hear a true contralto in the music, which centers in the octave extending from c’ to c’’.  German tenor Rudolf Schock (1915 – 1986) is well-known for his many performances and recordings of light Heldentenor and operetta roles.  His performances of choral works were less frequent, and this performance of the Missa solemnis offers a rare opportunity to hear Mr. Schock in something other than the operatic repertory for which he was appreciated.  If the tone is less ingratiating in this performance than in his many operatic recordings, this could be attributed to Mr. Schock’s audible efforts at being a member of an ensemble, matching his utterances – especially his vital contributions to the opening Kyrie – to those of his colleagues.  Mr. Schock’s singing is unfailingly secure, a welcome quality in music that makes almost unrelenting demands on the tenor’s passaggio.  German bass Josef Greindl (1912 – 1993) was particularly celebrated, at Bayreuth and throughout Europe (on stage and on records), for his performances of Wagner’s principal bass roles.  Three years prior to this performance of Missa solemnis, he sang the role of Marke in Wilhelm Furtwängler’s legendary studio recording of Tristan und Isolde, and ‘live’ recordings from Bayreuth preserve virtually his entire Wagnerian repertory.  Unlike Rudolf Schock, however, performances of choral music figured prominently in Mr. Greindl’s career.  Mr. Greindl had an extensive range that enabled him to sing both low and high bass roles, but it was on the lower end of the spectrum that he largely focused.  In this performance, Mr. Greindl’s singing is rich but occasionally opaque, the tone taking on a pewter coloration that obstructs textual clarity.  The opening bars of the Agnus Dei, one of the greatest passages for a bass soloist in the choral repertory, are not as sublime or impactful in the lower register as they might have been with a singer of Mr. Greindl’s accomplishments, but the performance is sincere and heartfelt.  It is, as noted previously in the context of Mr. Schock’s performance, the ensemble singing of the solo quartet that is most impressive.  The considerable difficulties of Beethoven’s music dictate that rigorously-trained soloists with flexible, well-projected voices are required.  In practice, this almost invariably results in the quartet being populated with operatic voices, introducing the obstacle – detrimental to Beethoven’s music – of four famous singers giving their voices high-profile workouts at the expense of the Missa’s structure.  Maestro Klemperer and his quartet of operatic thoroughbreds are to be credited with minimizing this effect in this performance, in which no single soloist stands out but, more rarely, there are no disappointments.

Like the much-discussed 1965 EMI recording, this performance preserves one of Maestro Klemperer’s most controversial decisions.  The soloists are assigned by the composer the subdued opening of the Sanctus, extending through the first introduction of counterpoint at ‘Pleni sunt cœli et terra gloria tua,’ beginning with a line for the contralto that descends to a (a3).  After nineteen bars (including a full bar of pause, marked with a fermata), Beethoven opens the gates on a brief but exhilarating fugue on ‘Osanna in excelsis’ that resolves the Sanctus and leads into the Preludium of the Benedictus.  The ‘Osanna’ fugue, only twenty-six bars (plus an anacrusis) in duration, builds on the models of Bach and Händel (or, equally importantly, Johann Fux and Padre Martini, much respected in eighteenth-century Vienna for their command of counterpoint) but presents an interpretive stumbling block: though seemingly scored (with instrumental doubling of the vocal lines) as a choral fugue, there is no indication in Beethoven’s manuscript of the choir’s re-entry until the Benedictus.  Though debate continues among musicologists and Beethoven scholars, the academic consensus is that Beethoven merely failed to annotate his manuscript to indicate the choir’s resumption of duties at the beginning of the ‘Osanna’ fugue.  Maestro Klemperer held the opinion that Beethoven’s manuscript reflected the composer’s true intentions, however, with the ‘Osanna’ fugue being sung by the soloists rather than the choir.  The soloists in this performance articulate the subject of the fugue effectively, but their – and Maestro Klemperer’s – conviction does not obscure the fact that the music seems tailor-made for choral singing.

Along with the works of Brahms, Mahler, and Mozart, it was the music of Beethoven upon which Otto Klemperer’s fame as a conductor and impressive discography were built.  In any comprehensive discussion of the performance and recording histories of the Missa solemnis Maestro Klemperer’s legacy is omnipresent.  The EMI studio recording remains a cornerstone of interpretation of the Missa on records, but this 1955 Kölner Rundfunk performance is in several important ways an even more impressive presentation of Beethoven’s score.  With a well-integrated quartet of soloists, choristers, and orchestral players performing with intensity and uncompromising musicality, Maestro Klemperer manages the difficult task of balancing reverence and grandiosity.  The quality of the sound is not first-rate (but, for that matter, neither is that of the EMI studio recording), but this performance is second-rate neither among Maestro Klemperer’s recordings of the work nor those of other conductors.  Above all, this performance is among the recordings that most palpably convey both the monumental proportions and the solemn intimacy of Beethoven’s brilliant Missa.

Otto Klemperer conducting Beethoven's MISSA SOLEMNIS in London