BEETHOVEN: Missa Solemnis cond. by Harnoncourt, Blu-ray (2013)

BEETHOVEN: Missa Solemnis cond. by Harnoncourt, Blu-ray (2013)

BEETHOVEN: Missa Solemnis, Op. 123 – Marlis Petersen, sop./ Elisabeth Kulman, contralto/ Werner Gura, tenor/ Gerald Finley, bass/ Netherlands Radio Choir/ Royal Concertgebouw Orch./ Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Director: Joost Honselaar
Studio: C Major 712704 [Distr. by Naxos]
Video: 1080i for 16:9, HD color
Audio: DTS-HD MA 5.0 Surround, PCM Stereo
Subtitles: German, English, French, Spanish, Korean, Chinese, Japanese
Length: 99 minutes
Rating: ****

Harnoncourt still likes to use things like olden trumpets and hard mallets for his timpani, and other such antiques that I suppose are able to convey some kind of historical realism in this music. Maybe. On the other hand, I am not sure that his penchant for going halfway in this effort makes a whole lot of sense, sort of like using a modern Steinway grand piano with a band of five period players in an orchestra. No matter—the man has developed into a first rate conductor over the last 20 years and has a lot to say in a lot of music. I am surprised it has taken so long to get a video of this.

Beethoven started this work nearly ten years before he died, and its gestation was around five years. It is truly the most monumental of all the great liturgical masses ever composed, and he gives lots of time for every movement to expand. Harnoncourt understands this; there is no heaven-raising barnstorming that you find in performances like that of Bernstein, and even the more tempered mannerisms that exact pietistic quietude—like that of another great recording, of Robert Shaw on Telarc—miss this almost metaphysical feel in music that the conductor clearly thinks is something worthy of a universalist sort of stamp that transcends the Catholic Mass. In fact there are many who argue just that, that Beethoven was really intending this to be something that stretched for meaning way beyond any sort of confined dogmatic utterances. Maybe. I am not convinced at all, for this is a piece that the composer knew was destined for the concert hall and not the church because of its very gargantuan nature, and therefore he could have created an entirely new form for his specifically non-conformist ideas had he so wished. But he didn’t, did he? He wrote a very conventional mass structure, and it wasn’t the first time.

In this great spaciousness Harnoncourt nevertheless brings about one of the most intimate readings I have ever heard, doing all he can to stay out of the way of the music, and even seeming to let the players themselves dictate much of the tone. It works well, and I doubt anyone but Harnoncourt could have managed such a feat. I enjoyed it greatly even if it isn’t on my desert island list of Solemnises, but it certainly is a new and fresh approach, and not the one we would have expected.

The camera work is very good, non-obtrusive, and the sound is terrific, as you would expect on Blu-ray in a setting like the Concertgebouw.

—Steven Ritter

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