Sunday, 4 September 2011

Prom 67: LSO/Davis - Beethoven: Missa Solemnis

Royal Albert Hall

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)

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

7 comments:

SorrowfulYoungW said...

"The moment was over in the twinkling of an eye" - or an eye-twinkle...!
I watched this on BBC4 last night and Davis was a revelation - the warmth, life and serenity that just exuded from him... I have never seen a conductor like him, particulalry with the orchestra but also the massive chorus. I doubt you watched the unbelievably vapid 'How a Choir Works' that followed the prom broadcast, but I couldn't help think that I had learned a lot more from watching Davis at work...

Mark Berry said...

I agree: apart from anything else, it was something of a masterclass in that respect. Sadly, I overheard behind me on a bus from the RAH a member of one of the choruses complaining loudly on her mobile telephone that 'he', one can only assume Sir Colin, 'didn't give many cues ... [slight pause for alleged explanatory effect]: he's old.' Happily, I have no doubt whatsoever that hers would have been the tiniest of minority views: as if conducting a work like this were a matter of dispensing cues...

SorrowfulYoungW said...

your restraint is admirable. I would have *gently* suggested she should take her f***ing head out of the score, if that's her impression...!

Elaine said...

I sang in the chorus in performances of Missa many years ago and think it is the greatest choral work ever. The violin solo always reduces me to tears at its utter beauty.

Glad I wasn't near the woman on the bus with her stupid remark - I would probably have thrown her mobile out of the window.

Thank you for a wonderful review

choralist said...

Having listened to parts of the radio broadcast live and formed initial impressions, I 'played again' last night in full the tv broadcast. I cannot share in the generally expressed plaudits for the performance of the choruses on Sunday. Time and time again can be heard many of the soprano singers striving to meet Beethoven's very severe demands on them, only to be undermined by a substantial number of their colleagues merely screaming at the note and missing. The tenors too were often wild, with individual voices coming through. That Beethoven's demands are severe should not mean that listeners have to make allowances. London is fortunate in having another chance to hear this great work performed just two months afterwards, on 4 November, in the RFH with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Noseda. Let's see if the modern Philharmonia Chorus can match their illustrious forbears under Klemperer.

Mathieu said...

I was in London at the time, and this concert was my first time at the RAH (I live in Paris, where, coincidently, the same piece by the same interpreters, minus the LP chorus, is going to be given next week). Friends had told me about the horrid acoustics of the hall, and... they were right, I am sorry to say (no offence intended!).
I agree with a lot of what Mr Berry said in his post. I have been a devoted fan of the Missa Solemnis, ever since my parents made me listen to the Klemperer version when I was a child. And it is true, this performance was to be remembered, and I must say, especially the choruses. Waw! The first "kyrie" at bar 21 was the most powerful I have ever heard. The Fugue in the Credo was remarkably clear, and virtually the best rendition of Beethoven's counterpoint one can dream of. And so on.
But, on the other hand, the orchestra was not flawless. The very beginning was quite... zögernd as Mahler would put it! The trumpets were late (which the berliozian Davis could have avoided), the strings were not together, etc. Same problems in the dona nobis of the Agnus Dei, bar 96 ff. There are other instances, but I will not indulge in the tedious and superfluous task to enumerate them... Let me just say that Nicolitch's performance in the andante cantabile before the benedictus was not only prosaic, but also sometimes out of tune. This was the moment I was looking for (my favorite part of the work, plus I am an usual fan of Nicolitch's), and this was a great disappointment: not only approximations in tuning and rhythm, but also this vibrato!!! I am not one of those baroque integrists, but please!
I do by no means want to be a spoilsport, since, apart from those little criticisms, it was a memorable and beautiful performance. Colin Davis is a wondeful conductor, with natural authority and leadership, even though it seemed to me that he was somewhat tired... I think I am going to the Paris performance if there are still tickets available. I am sure that with better acoustics and more rehearsal time, it will be the ultimate performance!!

Anonymous said...

I am glad to see someone writing about the Missa Solemnis who clearly values the work as it should be valued... My only disagreement is regarding the violin solo which I felt was played with belief and integrity. Why it should matter whether he was standing or sitting I don't know. Perhaps there were minor inaccuracies but the crucial point is that it was played with heart.
The Paris performance (which was the 3rd run) mentioned by a couple of people here was indeed the best of the performances in all senses, especially the chorus (only the LSC this time) who sang incomparably better than at the Prom - no problem that time with roughness, hearing individual singers or musical/technical struggles.