Beethoven : Missa Solemnis

 City Halls, Glasgow

May 10th, 2015

Beethoven composed his first of two settings of the mass in 1807, but Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, who had commissioned the Mass in C Major, humiliated the composer in his reception of it, and Beethoven, on the receiving end of a condescending comment by the prince, left his house in a fury. It took him fifteen years to tackle another setting – the Missa Solemnis, four years in composition, and written when he was at the height of his powers. The Mass in C Major (setting aside the prince’s churlishness) has a direct and positive emotional appeal, but the Missa Solemnis is one of the wonders of the musical world, and only its challenges at all levels and for all those involved perhaps prevent it from being performed more often. The performance I attended featured The City of Glasgow Chorus, The Orchestra of Scottish Opera, and four soloists with connections to the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. They were conducted by Bartosz Zurakowski.
My first encounter with this music was in the recording of von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic and the Vienna Singverein, with Gundula Janowitz, Christa Ludwig, Fritz Wunderlich and Walter Berry as the soloists. A formidable basis for any comparison. But, in fact, this assisted me in shaping my response to the performance in Glasgow. What do we look for: technical perfection or something that moves us? Truth or Beauty? Sometimes we can catch a portion of both. In this concert, everyone’s commitment to the piece was evident, and if there were any points over which the purists might come in, the way in which Beethoven’s great continuities were allowed to unfold, and the manner in which the music came through to affect us, compensated fully. For me it was deeply moving.If my familiarity with the piece partly prompted that, then I can only say nothing interfered with it either.

All sections of the choir put everything into their responses to the conductor and the score; members of the orchestratoo handled well the varying demands of the piece (drive on the bassoons!), and the ensemble work – as in the snappy conclusion to the ‘Gloria’ – was often very impressive. A special word for the soloists. Charlie Drummond (soprano) had range and dynamic to carry all that was required; sometimes (remember I have Janowitz at the back of my mind) her voice soared with a true and piercing tonal quality. Jane Monari (Mezzo) had beautiful control and warmth in delivery. Matthew Morgan (Tenor) had a lot to put across, and responded really well; the voice of Jonathan Forbes Kennedy (Baritone) is rich and pure, and will gain resonance as it develops. Their work together, as in the striking opening to the ‘Agnus Dei’, underlined their special quality. In fact all these singers, essentially still at different phases in training, will gain from the experience, and the belief that we will get more from all of them is really cheering. Their sensitivity and musicianship is already established. Their vocal contribution (generously acknowledged at the close by the conductor) was central to our enjoyment of the piece.As was the contribution of Bartosz Zurakowski himself. The choir rose to him in tribute at one of the curtain calls; clearly the work they had put in with the conductor(and with their musical director, Graham Taylor) was fully appreciated. Glad I was there to hear it.

Reviewer : Mr Scales

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