Visceral, Vivid, Visual Missa Solemnis

Review by: Robert Levine

Artistic Quality: 10

Sound Quality: 10

This strangest of all of Beethoven’s strange works is a disputed masterpiece. Not by me, mind you: I find the fact that it keeps you guessing amazing, particularly within the confines of a late-Classical tradition; most of us know where the resolution will land in almost any work composed between 1740 and 1830. There were rules. But in a religious work that combines war and redemption, horror and hope—a bizarre enough combination in the extremes to which Beethoven takes it—who has not been startled by the final cry of “Gloria” after, we assume, all is said and done in that movement? It is as if Beethoven (and the chorus) cannot contain their desire to exalt.

But far from being either messy, bi-polar, or purposefully perverse as some have called it, the Missa solemnis truly needs nothing more than a strong hand and a clear overview of the music itself. The effect will still be exhausting, and with this new performance featuring the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam and the Netherlands Radio Choir under Nikolaus Harnoncourt, the listener/viewer is left wobbly.

I’ve rarely thought that DVDs/films of non-operatic events were valuable, but here you can see the reasoning and can appreciate the effects Harnoncourt is aiming for, and gets. With the violins split on opposite sides of the podium and the other strings fanned out in a semi-circle in front of him, he has un-muddied some of Beethoven’s thorniest counterpoint; I’m certain that other conductors have done the same, but being able to see it helps to hear it. And indeed, the clarity is evident here, and throughout Harnoncourt’s aim would appear to be to add air to what sometimes can feel suffocating. The overall effect of the Missa under Harnoncourt is one of a ceremony, one in which there are emotional outbursts that nonetheless are part of the structure and fabric. To put it more colloquially, it’s a helluva ride.

Gone, incidentally, are the days when Harnoncourt’s choices of tempo seemed to be obdurate and experimental; now everything makes sense. The Kyrie takes its time, with the repeats on the word “Kyrie” itself tapered to pianissimo by the chorus out of absolute reverence. The extroverted sections of the Gloria are whirlwind; the “Et vitam venture” positively dizzying. The drum rolls in the Agnus Dei sound as if they come from beyond. The entire Gloria, so often seeming arbitrarily sewn together, coheres. The flutes accompanying the “Et incarnatus est” rarely have sounded so otherworldly—or beautiful—and I might say the same for the violin solo at the Benedictus.

The diction of the chorus and soloists is impeccable; the blend of the four soloists is ideal. Harnoncourt asks for vibrato at times from both voices and instrumentalists and it is very effective (many will miss the post-Romantic throbbing of Karajan; I did not). Timpani is played with wooden sticks and (I think) the horns are natural; it is both entertaining and insightful to watch the bassoons. The balance is perfect. This is a great performance, for both watching and listening.



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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: This one on DVD


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