Beethoven himself considered the Missa Solemnis, his second setting of the Latin mass text, to be his greatest achievement. Others might lean towards one of the late string quartets or piano sonatas, or his Symphony No. 9, but when we reach this level of genius, who's counting or assigning rank?
BEETHOVEN Missa Solemnis, Opus 123
Marlis Petersen (soprano), Elisabeth Kulman (contralto), Werner Gura (tenor) and Gerald Finley (bass) Netherlands Radio Choir, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt Unitel Classica Blu-ray disc 712704 (all regions)
Despite its being placed at the summit by no less than the composer himself, the Missa Solemnis seems to be less well known among general listeners than the Ninth Symphony or even the final quartets. The reason is not only that the cruel demands the composer makes on the conductor and singers make successful performances rare, but also the strangeness of the piece itself. By all accounts, Beethoven struggled mightily with it, and it is unlike anything else that he composed.
He did use a similar scoring of a quartet of vocal soloists, a chorus, and orchestra soon afterwards for the Ninth Symphony, but the effect is very different. The surface of the Missa Solemnis is rough and jagged, with sudden changes of mood and tone throughout, usually without any kind of transition. There is very little repetition. The gigantic choral fugues toward the end of the Gloria and Credo sections move like tanks, relentlessly driven by an energy very different from the one that propels the big fugues in other late Beethoven works _ the last movement of the Hammerklavier Sonata, for example, or the Grosse Fuge that was the original finale to the B-flat string quartet. But when a conductor with a complete grasp of the piece joins forces with singers and orchestral players capable of realising his concept of it, the Missa Solemnis can be an overwhelming experience.
Recordings by Bernstein (two of them), Levine, Herreweghe, Gardiner and an earlier one by Harnoncourt have all captured this feeling of transcendence, but for me this new one, made by Harnoncourt at the age of 83, projects it more powerfully than any since Klemperer's great 1966 account for EMI. Any interpretation of the Missa Solemnis that responds sincerely to this bottomless score must sustain the strong tension that underlies every bar of it, even, or especially, in its quieter sections (the orchestral passage marked "mit Andacht" toward the beginning of the Sanctus, for example, or the two vocal quartets that follow on the words "Sanctus, Dominus Deus Sabaoth", and "Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini", with its piercingly beautiful violin solo).
Harnoncourt's interpretation is not as dramatic as Levine's or either of Bernstein's, although it yields to none of those in intensity. He does not race through the big fugues the way Toscanini, Gardiner and, especially, Levine do, nor is his tempo as deliberate as Klemperer's. The performance allows these passages to achieve in increasing feeling of unstoppable momentum with the whole fugal fabric in clear focus throughout.
The conductor's awe of the music (this video version frequently shows emotions like fear or terror on his face) is clearly shared by the performers. The vocal quartet here is as close to ideal as I have heard. Soprano Petersen and tenor Gura attack every note dead-centre, even in the most gruelling passages, and all four singers communicate a feeling of personal involvement with the music, including the ensembles where they all sing together. Listen to bass Finley's Agnus Dei solo, as deep in its despair as he sings the words "miserere nobis" as Martti Talvela in Klemperer's recording. The Concertgebouw Chorus, too, is completely up to Beethoven's notorious demands, with the sopranos unfazed by the high tessitura inflicted on them in the Gloria and, especially, the "et vitam venturi" fugue of the Credo.
Unitel's Blu-ray recording of the April 2012 concert captures the sound with complete naturalness and is free of any noticeable tinkering by audio engineers, especially on the multi-channel DTS, which over good equipment really does create the feeling of actually being in the Concertgebouw Amsterdam hall. The video presentation, directed by Joost Honselaar, is very good, but in music like this, with so much contrapuntal activity spread through the entire ensemble it will be hard to satisfy every viewer. I often felt frustrated while watching because the director was focusing on, for example, the choral sopranos while it was the tenors, or perhaps the orchestral strings, who were performing the music that, for me, was most interesting. Perhaps the Missa Solemnis registers most powerfully without any visual distractions at all.
Still, this is a magnificent performance of a piece that throws down terrible challenges to interpreters and, with the Klemperer, would be one of the two in my collection that I would surrender last. I purchased my copy online from amazon.co.uk.