BEETHOVEN: Missa solemnis in D Major, Op. 123 ‒ Laura Aikin, sop./ Bernarda Fink, alto / Johannes Chum, tenor/ Ruben Drole, bass/ Arnold Schoenberg Chor /Concentus Musicus Wien /Nicholas Harnoncourt ‒ Sony 88985313592, 81:00 (7/15/16) ***1/2:
Harnoncourt was a great Beethoven conductor, but his final recording is not entirely successful.
Did you know that Beethoven notated over thirty different tempo markings in his Missa solemnis? Neither did I. That’s just one of the wonderful bits of information you can glean if you take time to read the program notes that come along with recordings. Another interesting fact is that Nicholas Harnoncourt’s first seven performances of the Missa solemnis were delivered not from the podium but from a chair in the cello section of the Vienna Symphony. Apparently, none of these performances seemed to capture the essence of the work for him. Indeed, only as he prepared for his own first performance of the work as conductor, in 1988, did he fully come to terms with Beethoven’s difficult masterpiece. Harnoncourt wrote about the experience, “All that had seemed to me to be empty bathos suddenly turned into the opposite.”
Empty bathos? Wow! Those seven prior performances not only left him with a sense of interpretive failure on the part of the maestros he served under; they apparently left him with a less than glowing impression of the work itself, quite a confession from a Beethoven specialist of the first order. Eventually, Harnoncourt not only saw the light but made amends in a series of public performances of the Missa and no fewer than three recordings, including this final one.
It is also Harnoncourt’s last recording, made live over the course of three days in July 2015 at the Stephaniensal in Graz; the conductor died in March of the following year. The performance certainly has the usual frisson that an audience inspires. And despite the fact the recording was pieced together, the selectivity with which the conductor and producers approached the project results in a seamless, just about flawless rendition, at least in terms of getting the notes right. The audience was on its best behavior too. In fact, if I didn’t know better, I would think this is a studio recording, especially given the sense of timbral integrity to the sound, top to bottom. Nary a jot of stridency, congestion, or dropout, with soloists, orchestra, and chorus all situated in a believable acoustic space.
Also, that Harnoncourt was working with his colleagues of many years, the Concentus Musicus and Arnold Schoenberg Choir, results in a performance where the conductor obviously gets exactly what he wants from his forces. Playing and singing are of the first order. Employing authentic instruments, Harnoncourt achieves balances that are rarely heard, with the winds and timpani vividly present. I can’t recall a performance in which the trombone parts are more tellingly clear. If Harnoncourt doesn’t have quite a stellar cast of soloists, they certainly blend well and manage to make some lovely (Agnus dei) and powerful (Crucifixus) sounds.
Yet not everything is quite right. Strangely, given that the program notes make much of Beethoven’s many tempo changes and emphasize Harnoncourt’s care over the markings—his “tempo dramaturgy”—there’s a certain foursquare quality, even stodginess to the conductor’s approach, especially in the festive Gloria, usually a musical juggernaut. Harnoncourt’s initial tempo is slow, oddly metronomic, and he fails to build up a head of steam even in the careening final pages of the movement. Some of this squareness informs the muscular Credo as well. But it can’t all be a matter of tempo. I’m a fan of Harnoncourt’s 2012 performance of the Missa with the Royal Concertgebouw, captured on Blu-ray and DVD (C Major). The conductor’s tempi are generally even slower in this performance, yet the feeling of forward momentum is more evident in the two movements I cite.
This is unfortunate given all the very good things in Harnoncourt’s final recording of the score, including a wonderfully serene Kyrie and Benedictus, a Dona nobis pacem that the conductor works up to a frenzy of anxiety, recalling as the piece does the recent terrors of the Napoleonic Wars. Given the many positives, I can recommend this recording to Harnoncourt enthusiasts, as well as to those who want to hear a master’s final take on a score that he lived with a great long time. Just note that this is neither the last word in Missa performances nor even Harnoncourt’s ultimate reading of the work.