Ludwig van Beethoven: Missa solemnis, opus 123
Polina Pastirchak (soprano), Sophie Harmsen (mezzo-soprano), Steve Davislim (tenor), Johannes Weisser (bass), the RIAS Kammerchor Berlin, Denis Comtet (choir master), Freiburger Barockorchester, René Jacobs (conductor)
Recording: Teldex Studio Berlin, Germany (May 2019) – 72’02
harmonia mundi HMM 902427 (Distributed by PIAS) - Booklet in French, English and German
harmonia mundi has released another addition to its “Beethoven Alive! 2020-2027” series of new recordings and reissues during the composer’s 250th anniversary year (the year 2027 is the bicentenary of his death). René Jacobs leads the Freiburger Barockorchester and the RIAS Kammerchor Berlin in Beethoven’s Missa solemnis, opus 123, composed between 1819 and 1823, not long before the Ninth Symphony was completed (three movements of the Missa were premiered in the May 7, 1824 concert in which the Ninth Symphony was first performed).
It seems a bit puzzling as to why harmonia mundi chose Jacobs, a Baroque opera specialist, for this production. Jacobs has occasionally recorded works by post-Baroque composers (Haydn and Mozart), with a brief sortie into Schubert symphonies. But except for a recording of Leonore, the 1805 predecessor of Fidelio, his association with Beethoven is not particularly obvious, although he is a logical choice for expertise on early music practice. And yet, the revolutionary Beethoven is not so distant from the Baroque masters who preceded him. The composer cut his teeth on Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier and considered Handel his favorite composer.
Despite being strange bedfellows, Jacobs and the Missa hit it off fairly well. The recording is divided among 15 tracks that move along with purpose and vigor, and while he elicits a big sound from his musical resources, it is not overwhelming. The chorus has a pure, coordinated sound, with near-perfect articulation of some intimidating melismas and some very challenging high passages in the “Gloria” and “Credo”. The SATB soloists and orchestra, likewise, responded to the conductor with professionalism and polish.
The Missa solemnis remains a paradox on several levels. Professional commentators and lay Beethoven enthusiasts, alike, either love it or hate it. For some, myself included, the work harkens back to an earlier, more in-your-face Beethoven from his so-called “heroic” period, seemingly at odds with the transcendent introspection of works from his final years (think Opp. 109 through 111 and 130 through 135, all chamber or recital pieces). And yet, it is often thought of as the fraternal twin of the Ninth Symphony, an extraverted work if ever there was one. To Jacobs’ great credit, this Missa does not shout at us like a stern 19th century schoolmaster, but tells the Church’s central story with expressive tempos, variations in volume, and a kinder, if not exactly subtle, attitude.
Beethoven’s setting puts demands on listeners as well as performers. While under an hour-and-a-half in length, making it shorter than Bach’s B minor Mass and almost half the length of Handel’s Messiah, the Missa tends to drag at times, especially near the end, born down by the inescapably ponderous Latin text. In this recording, high choral voices, stretched to the limit, cannot avoid a touch of short-lived screechiness in the “Gloria”. Jacobs does end this movement with a fleeting touch of sotto voce tenderness, a moment I could replay again and again. In contrast, in the et vitam section of the “Credo” (here pronounced "Creedo", not "Craydo"), the chorus sings at a breakneck speed with some aggressive interjections that I found more exhausting than exhilarating. But these are brief irregularities, or, perhaps, simply positioning of the mics that in no way spoil Jacobs’ overall interpretation of Beethoven’s vision nor do they derail us from a rewarding listening journey.
Beethoven, of course, had no use for the Roman church, but, nonetheless, was a person of deep faith and spiritual conviction. Perhaps his orientation was closer to that of Lutheranism, given his close relationship with his Protestant teacher and mentor, Christian Neefe. When the great composer died, the only religious book in his possession was a Protestant tract which he had enthusiastically underlined and notated.
Dedicated to his personal friend and music student, the Archduke Rudolph, the Missa seems to me to reflect a sense of tribute and obligation rather than the expression of personal devotion or conviction. And yet there are abundant historical reports and anecdotes affirming that Beethoven was thoroughly invested in this work and regarded it as one of his greatest masterpieces. René Jacobs and company certainly agree with this latter sentiment and have produced a version appealing even to those of us who prefer Beethoven in either his bombastic revolutionary or sublimely mystical mood.