Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis @ Barbican Hall, London

20 March 2008

The Missa Solemnis, completed when Beethoven was 52, is a work of enormous grandeur and spiritual depth.

Beethoven regarded it as his greatest achievement, but performances are rare due to its length and the formidable vocal writing.

Despite the work’s difficulties, this performance under the baton of Mark Forkgen was remarkably successful in conveying the vision of Beethoven’s music.

With 99 singers from the London Concert Choir, 23 from Canticum and 8 boys from Tonbridge School, the performance was notable for its large choral sound. By contrast, the English Chamber Orchestra fielded just 43 players, in line with Beethoven’s score, although using modern instruments played with vibrato. Forkgen directed the combined forces with clear, elegant baton movements.

With committed singing from the chorus, the results were exhilarating in the Kyrie and the more stately passages of the work. However, such a large choral sound had its disadvantages too, notably a lack of clarity in the complex fugues of the Gloria and Credo, not helped by the unhelpful acoustic of the Barbican Hall. As a result, the tension sagged a little towards the end of the Credo’s 20 minute long span.

Things were back on track with the devotional atmosphere that Forkgen brought to the Sanctus. As elsewhere, the performance benefited from the excellent singing of the four soloists, soprano Claire Seaton, mezzo soprano Jeanette Ager, tenor Michael Bracegirdle and bass Nicholas Warden. All four names were new to me, but Seaton and Bracegirdle in particular sang with an inner intensity that was deeply moving. Forkgen maintained an exemplary balance of forces in the glorious Benedictus, although I would have preferred a less febrile vibrato in the violin solo played by Stephanie Gonley.

The minor key solemnity of the concluding Agnus Dei was powerfully evoked and there was some fine playing from the ECO in both the martial music for trumpets and drums as well as the contrapuntal fugato. The chorus’s final declamations of “pacem” communicated radiance and joy.

If not every aspect of this Missa Solemnis was ideal, the performance was nonetheless impressive for communicating the beauty and exultation at the heart of Beethoven’s epic score.

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