Four years’ work went into the composition of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, and you can really tell it’s his most intricate piece, and one of the most complicated works by any composer to perform.
The complexity of the fugues, the frequent counterpoint between the quartet of soloists, the choir and the different sections of the orchestra, and the sheer length of the piece over an hour and a half make it a huge challenge to perform.
This makes the achievement of the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under Sir Colin Davis all the greater, for this was as convincing a performance of this hugely problematic work as you could hope to hear. The Missa is almost on the margins of the repertoire because most orchestras back off the challenge of performing it. And in theory, audiences don’t like it either.
Well, Sir Colin has proved this to be wrong, because the Barbican was sold out for this majestic and visceral performance. His contribution to the programme book makes for a fascinating read, admirably lucid in his detailed account of his interpretation of the way in which the music and text interact in the work. Beethoven’s setting of the Latin Mass is hugely dramatic without being slightly theatrical; he responds to each word, phrase and line with specific gestures, for instance changing metre, key and tempo in each of the three lines of the Kyrie eleison, and Sir Colin’s reading brought out many of these details.
At their first entrance, the high quality of the soloists was apparent. In particular, the Finnish soprano Soile Isokoski had a radiant, floating quality to her voice that bodes well for her Countess in The Marriage of Figaro at Covent Garden in June (also under Davis). The mezzo Sara Mingardo was as dedicated as ever, and the young tenor Pavol Bresnik had an impressive smooth line and lyric phrasing, even if he seemed rather too glued to the score. Standing in at short notice for the bass Franz-Josef Selig was veteran Alastair Miles, his sinisterly elegant voice bringing a sense of foreboding to the opening of the Agnus Dei.
The Kyrie set off with a focus that was typical of the whole. The soloists’ repeated cries of ‘Christe’ in the middle section brought out the sighing quality of Beethoven’s word-setting, and Isokoski excelled in the descant line of the second ‘Kyrie’ section. The trumpet blasts and dotted figures from the timpani gave a tremendous accompaniment to the concentrated solidity of the LSC, leading into a particularly exuberant rendition of the Gloria. Here, the choir embarked at the tops of their voices, the basses creeping in subtly on the line ‘Et in terra pax hominibus’ until another outburst at ‘Benedicimus te’ and canonic entries at ‘Glorificamus te’. Again, an understanding of the composer’s details was apparent.
Most moving of all was the complex Credo, and even if many of the words started to be lost in the complexity of the texture, the sense of purpose was never lost. The mighty fugue at ‘Et vitam venture saeculi’ provided a fitting apotheosis to what went before, though the tenors were rather exposed at their first entry.
An impression of growing power came across in the Sanctus, with the LSO coming into their own in a series of solos starting with guest leader Stephanie Gonley. And the Agnus Dei provided a typically Beethovenian outburst to end the concert on a high.
In all, a moving experience, and one awaits the forthcoming LSO Live recording with anticipation.