06 July 2015

CD REVIEW: Ludwig van Beethoven – MISSA SOLEMNIS, Op. 123 (G. Kühmeier, E. Kulman, M. Padmore, H. Müller-Brachmann; Chor und Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks; B. Haitink; BR Klassik 900130)

CD REVIEW: Ludwig van Beethoven - MISSA SOLEMNIS, Op. 123 (BR Klassik 900130)LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770 – 1827): Missa solemnis in D major, Op. 123Genia Kühmeier (soprano), Elisabeth Kulman (mezzo-soprano), Mark Padmore (tenor), Hanno Müller-Brachmann (bass-baritone); Anton Barachovsky, violin; Chor und Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks; Bernard Haitink, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ in Herkulessaal der Residenz, Munich, Germany, 25 – 26 September 2014; BR Klassik 900130; 1 CD, 79:22; Available from BR Klassik, Amazon, iTunes, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

Almost every listener with particular affection for Ludwig van Beethoven’s magnificent behemoth, the Missa solemnis, has amidst the work’s extensive discography a single favorite recorded performance from which affection could not be deviated except by the discovery of recorded interpretations by God or Beethoven himself. The demands of the score are so extravagant that mere survival is admirable, but the qualities that define an effective performance of Missa solemnis are prioritized differently by each individual listener. Enrico Caruso’s famous quip about Verdi’s Il trovatore requiring the four best singers in the world, logic validated by countless dismal performances of the opera, might be expanded and applied with equal credibility to Beethoven’s Missa solemnis: all that a performance of the work requires to be successful is the participation of four extraordinary soloists, the world’s best chorus and orchestra, and a conductor who is both poet and platoon commander. Mastery of Bach’s, Händel’s, Mozart’s, and Haydn’s contrapuntal writing does not guarantee success in Beethoven’s music. Whereas the fugues in Bach’s Matthäus-Passion, Händel’s Saul, Mozart’s Requiem, and Haydn’s Die Schöpfung call for finesse, the gargantuan fugues of the Missa solemnis need the brute authority of a traffic cop who can marshal resources with unflinching determination and clear direction. Well into his ninth decade, Dutch conductor Bernard Haitink might not be assumed to be the most likely candidate for taking up badge and whistle and leading a wholly successful performance of Missa solemnis, but one of the peculiar joys of music is the complete obliteration of assumptions. Remarkably, this recording of Missa solemnis, the product of a pair of performances in Munich’s Herkulessaal der Residenz preserved in wonderfully spacious and admirably clear sonics by Bayerischen Rundfunks producer Michael Kempff and balance engineer Ulrike Schwarz is Haitink’s first. Documenting his concept of the monumental score with a lifetime’s experience with the Symphonies, Concerti, and Fidelio to his credit, the conductor does not allow his reputation as a Beethoven interpreter to be the core of his reading of Missa solemnis. In short, this recording is not a gap-filler in the discography of an important conductor but an insightful artist’s meticulously-honed view of one of the greatest works in the Western liturgical canon.

When Haitink recorded Fidelio some years ago with Jessye Norman in the title rôle, the performance was notable for being perhaps the only recording to have emerged in the years since the release of Karl Böhm’s Deutsche Grammophon recording with Dame Gwyneth Jones and James King that is a bonafide performance of Beethoven’s opera rather than a statement of a conductor’s idiosyncratic concept of it. On the whole, this is also true of Haitink’s recording of Missa solemnis. The Maestro’s pacing of the work is not without an apt air of reverence, but the prevailing ethos of the performance is musical, not dogmatic. Beethoven’s relationship with religion was notoriously complicated, but the sentiments in Missa solemnis speak for themselves when allowed to do so. Haitink permits them the use of their own voices, and his performance is ultimately more moving than many readings that attempt to be overt paeans to indoctrinated faith. The musical forces of the Chor und Symphonierchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks respond to Haitink’s leadership with the unambiguous enthusiasm of fellow musicians who share or at least understand the conduction’s vision. The orchestra’s musicians, players collectively and individually as talented as any of their colleagues in Europe’s most renowned orchestras, deliver one of the most accurate traversals of Beethoven’s score on records, achieving studio-quality precision without losing the do-or-die intensity of live performance. When the music calls for rafter-rattling volume, the musicians supply it unabashedly, but these musicians comprehend what many of today’s singers do not, that producing notes loudly is not the same thing as playing music passionately. This was a critical distinction to Beethoven, and it must also be in the performance of his music.

From the first bars of the ‘Kyrie eleison,’ the finest qualities of Haitink’s interpretation of Beethoven’s daunting music are apparent. Foremost is clarity of line, maintained even in the most grandiose ensemble passages. Indeed, it is remarkable to observe the extent to which Haitink sustains chamber-music-like textures when both orchestra and choir are in full cry. To this is added an intuitive command of dynamics. Neither loud nor soft volumes seem exploited for easy effects: taking his cues from the score, Haitink intelligently exposes Beethoven’s intentions rather than imposing his own. The well-judged tempo adopted for the beginning of the Mass is appropriately measured but not sluggish, establishing the grandeur of the music without being sunk by it. The pointed, still-youthful voice of tenor soloist Mark Padmore emerges from the fabric of the expertly-balanced choral singing with the impact of sunlight breaking through storm clouds, the urgency of his phrasing and diction minimizing the difficulties encountered by a light, lyric voice in this music. It was for a Tamino and not a Siegfried that the part was conceived, however, and the consistently attractive sounds that Padmore emits, projecting rather than forcing the voice, are far more effective than the rough-hewn noises of larger instruments. Soprano Genia Kühmeier’s luscious but lean voice sounds more comfortable in Beethoven’s music than almost any other voice of similar weight recorded in the Missa solemnis, and her singing in the ‘Kyrie’ gleams attractively, hoisted above the stave by Haitink’s supportive management of the string figurations that accompany her. Mezzo-soprano Elisabeth Kulman brings heartening fullness of tone in the middle octave to her singing, and she is among the handful of exponents of the alto part who are not weak links in their respective recordings. In this performance, Kulman’s well-integrated, secure singing is a decided strength. The solo quartet is completed by bass-baritone Hanno Müller-Brachmann, another impeccably-trained singer whose work in this performance exceeds the quality of singing by famous basses whose participation in competing recordings of Missa solemnis seemed inspired primarily by efforts at selling records. Considered one by one, the soloists yield certain points to their colleagues on other recordings: Dame Elisabeth Schwarzkopf more readily evinced the mysticism of the text, Christa Ludwig offered more seamless transitions between registers, Nicolai Gedda had more thrust at the top of the range, and Gwynne Howell and Kurt Moll had greater resonance in the bottom octave of their voices. As an ensemble, however, Haitink’s singers constitute as fine a solo quartet as might be assembled today. They alternate majestically with the choir in both the ‘Kyrie eleison’ and the ‘Christe eleison,’ their efforts highlighting the solitary and the universal implications of supplicants’ pleas for divine mercy.

The surging opening subject of the ‘Gloria’ makes ferocious demands upon the choristers’ throats, the sopranos in particular suffering from being taken repeatedly to the G and A at the top of the stave. The Munich singers hold their own, producing laudably reliable intonation even when singing at full volume at the extremes of their ranges. The soloists make a beautiful oasis of ‘Gratias agimus tibi,’ Kulman singing with especially fine tone that brings to mind the singing of the little-remembered Mary Jarred in Sir Thomas Beecham’s 1937 Leeds Town Hall performance of Missa solemnis. The compactness of the vocal writing for the soloists in ‘Domine fili unigenite’ draws from the singers performances of splendid focus. The choristers’ singing of the Larghetto ‘Qui tolllis peccata mundi’ is lovely. The tenors soar to the top A that launches ‘Quoniam tu solus sanctus,’ trumped in short order by a veritable litany of top As from the sopranos. The stately fugue on ‘In gloria Dei patris, amen,’ marked Allegro, ma non troppo e ben marcato by Beethoven, has in Haitink’s handling precisely those qualities. All of the singers, choristers and soloists, handle their passagework impressively, not least when the soloists’ voices intertwine above the basses’ intoning of ‘Cum sancto spiritu,’ detonating the explosive resolution of the frenetic counterpoint.

It is also to the basses that Beethoven entrusted the first words in the ‘Credo,’ and Haitink’s is among the few performances on disc that meticulously observe the composer’s subito forte indications. Beethoven here demands top B♭s of the sopranos, which the ladies provide without undue stress. Padmore begins ‘Et incarnatus est’ ravishingly, the baritonal colorations of the lower octave of his voice lending the text a pronounced element of unanswerable authority. The choral tenors manfully brave the high tessitura of ‘Et resurrexit tertia die secundum scripturas,’ and the altos display formidable strength in ‘Credo in Spiritum Sanctum qui ex patre filio que procedit,’ an Allegro ma non troppo section that leads the sopranos to another fearsome top B♭. The closing pages of the ‘Credo’ are among the most difficult ever composed for choir, and after the deceptively simply Allegro con moto respite shared by the first violin, flute, and oboe, the pace and momentum are relentless until relieved like the discharge of lightning by the startling alternations of pianissimo and fortissimo in the concluding Grave. Soloists, chorus, orchestra, and conductor scale the heights of the music without once losing their footing.

The ‘Credo’ is the pensive cerebrum of the Missa solemnis, and the ‘Sanctus’ is its throbbing heart. Haitink takes the ‘Mit Andacht’ marking at the start of the movement very seriously but does not ignore the subtle touches of irony in Beethoven’s word-setting. The soloists create an atmosphere of hushed awe in the hesitant opening passage and then unleash a maelstrom of bravura singing in ‘Pleni sunt cœli et terra gloria tua, osanna in excelsis.’ The Sostenuto ma non troppo Preludium to the ‘Benedictus’ is lushly played, the basses’ statement of ‘Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini’ seeming to emerge from the depths of the earth. Symbolizing the ascent of the Trinity into heaven​ in the form of the Holy Spirit, represented as a dove​, ​the solo violin part in the ‘Benedictus’ is among Beethoven’s most exquisitely beautiful melodic inspirations: neither in concert works nor in his sonatas for violin did the composer fashion a sustained melody of a quality that surpasses that of the solo line in the ‘Benedictus.’ Following Haitink’s lead, Anton Barachovsky phrases the violin solo with eloquence. His tone occasionally sounds slightly anemic, perhaps resulting from microphone placement, but Barachovsky’s playing eschews the excessive vibrato that mars many performances. His phrasing is matched by the soloists’ articulations of text, as well as by the orchestra’s caressing of their music. The powerful crescendo to the subito forte on the central syllable of the final ‘excelsis’ and the subsequent decrescendo to the piano G-major chord that closes the movement are compellingly realized.

In the dolorous opening subject of the ‘Agnus Dei,’ Müller-Brachmann’s steady, handsome bass-baritone voice cannot provide the orotundity of tone at the bottom of the compass that a bass has—or should have—at his disposal, but this thoughtful singer phrases the descending melodic line with utter simplicity and sincerity, making of the text an intensely personal statement that amounts to a confession made directly into the ear of Providence. When the melancholy of the bass line is transformed into an expression of desperate angst by the entrance of the alto and tenor, Kulman’s Ferrier-like timbre joins with Padmore’s thin but unbreakable thread of silvery tone in winding through the music with the organic surety of a river forging its course through a canyon. Kühmeier’s voice floats above the ensemble stunningly, her top Gs glowing like beacons in Saint John of the Cross’s ‘dark night of the soul.’ The Allegretto vivace ‘Dona nobis pacem,’ famously described by Beethoven as a ‘Bitte um innern und äussern Frieden,’ is a devotion into which the disorder of conflict intrudes, and Haitink conducts it as an exposition of the power of compassion to quell doubt, hopelessness, and sorrow.

Conducting Beethoven’s Missa solemnis is surely one of the most terrifying tasks in Classical Music. Composing this gargantuan score must have been no less intimidating even for the steel-willed Beethoven. Completing the score occupied nearly four years of his life, and the work’s first performance in 1824, documented as a bewildering experience for the audience, introduced Beethoven’s masterwork to a musical milieu that perhaps was not yet ready for it. Many conductors also grapple with the Missa solemnis before they are ready to dedicate to it the study, submersion, and surrender that the music demands. With this recording, Bernard Haitink crowns a storied career including countless triumphs in Beethoven repertory with a performance of Missa solemnis that exhibits a mastery of the piece that eludes all but a select society of conductors. It is an achievement for which this conductor prepared for more than sixty years, leading critically-acclaimed performances in Chicago and Zürich before taking the podium before the microphones in Munich. Beethoven deserves no less.