In Gardiner’s hands, Beethoven’s highly personal setting of the mass came across as a towering, original masterpiece.
“Shock and awe”. These epithets have often been used to describe the effect Beethoven’s monumental setting of the Latin liturgical mass should have on audiences, and given this superlative performance at the Proms you can see why. Conductor John Eliot Gardiner has lived with this work for many years, and has recorded it twice. His first recording, available on Archiv, for many commentators remains the benchmark by which all recordings are judged. His second, 15 years later with similar forces – The Monteverdi Choir and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique – is more visceral, and stands as the perfect foil to his previous recording.
These forces arrived at the Proms, and with several performances already under their belt as part of their European tour, delivered a coruscating account of this towering work from Beethoven’s late period. The Missa solemnis is rarely encountered in the concert hall these days – no doubt in part to the phenomenal demands the German composer makes of his forces, especially the orchestra and choir. It’s also a tricky work to get right. Its sudden mood swings, changes of gear, and extremes of tempo require a sure hand on the tiller, which is precisely what Gardiner was able to provide.
His forces responded with fervour and commitment, alive to the numerous quicksilver changes in mood. We’ve heard the Monteverdi Choir on numerous occasions before, yet honestly can’t say we’ve heard them sing better than this. The choral writing is fiendishly difficult, much of it written stratospherically high for the sopranos, yet even Gardiner’s lighting speed for the Credo couldn’t faze them. Despite singing at full throttle at the close of this movement, the sound was always beautiful and controlled. Scrupulous attention to diction and dynamic markings, whilst always keeping the balance between the vocal lines in check ensured that Beethoven’s unique vision came across with rare insight and musicianship. There was an electricity that surged throughout the performance – due in no small part the choir’s faultless intonation, and fearless way they tackled Beethoven’s exacting contrapuntal writing.
They were superbly supported by the exemplary playing of the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique – and given they play on original instruments, every orchestral texture was crystal clear. The rasping woodwind and braying brass highlighted the jarring dissonances contained in the score better than any smoothed over modern instruments could, while the upper strings coped magnificently with Beethoven’s endless runs, each cleanly taken and ensuring every single note was properly articulated. Leader Peter Hanson’s extended solo in the Benedictus was beautifully done.
“…sudden mood swings, changes of gear, and extremes of tempo require a sure hand on the tiller, which is precisely what Gardiner was able to provide”
Gardiner’s hand-picked quartet of soloists could hardly have been bettered, partnering two seasoned hands with a couple of up-and-coming singers. Soprano Lucy Crowe (who appears on the second recorded version) possesses a voice of rare beauty and depth – able to float ravishing pianissimos, yet able to ride the climaxes without ever having to push her voice. She made her mark in the opening Kyrie and went on to sing out thrillingly in the Santus – her ‘Pleni sunt caeli’ launching the fugue confidently and with breathtaking ease.
Ann Hallenberg brought her exquisitely focused mezzo to bear in a gloriously voiced Agnus Dei, her warm, refulgent tone blending perfectly with Crowe’s. Young Italian tenor Giovanni Sala showed enormous promise, displaying his well-schooled voice to particularly telling effect in the Gloria – easily projecting into the cavernous hall with thrilling results. William Thomas underpinned this exceptional quartet of singers with his sepulchral bass voice, coming into his own in the Benedictus and Agnus Dei, where he really shone. This British bass is a name to watch – a BBC New Generation Artist, and winner of the Kathleen Ferrier Award (2018) – and clearly has an exciting future ahead.
The architect of the evening’s unqualified success, as suggested earlier, was Gardiner – drawing exceptional performances from everyone involved. The entire work bristled with energy from start to finish – and he understands better than most how to overcome the Royal Albert Hall’s shortcomings when it comes to period performance. This Proms season has been memorable for many reasons. As it’s the first since 2019 without any Covid restrictions, full-scale choral works have been possible once again – and there’s been an embarrassment of riches this year. Even so, and despite some stiff competition, this glorious, life-enhancing, inspired performance of Beethoven’s choral masterpiece was one of the very best and will live long in the memory.
• Full details of the BBC Proms season 2022 can be found here.