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God In The Concert Hall

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center
10/21/2011 -  
Ludwig van Beethoven: Missa Solemnis, opus 13

Helena Juntunen (Soprano), Sarah Connolly (Mezzo-soprano), Paul Groves (Tenor), Matthew Rose (Bass)
London Symphony Chorus, Paul Cullen (Director), London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Colin Davis (Conductor)

C. Davis (© Staatskapelle Dresden)

Ludwig van Beethoven may be Titanic, but Sir Colin Davis is the very essence of Nobility. Melding them in the Missa Solemnis was a wondrous way to help get the White Light Festival off to a radiant start.

Sir Colin is not noble in the British sense, but in the sense that the music he performs is always right for the composer, not an aggrandizement for the conductor. Whether Beethoven or Mozart of his beloved Berlioz, Sir Colin brings a magisterial grandeur. The size of the work, the forces involved are immaterial, for his nature brings out the inner strength, the essence of any great work of art.

The forces last night at the second evening of the White Night Festival were indeed massive, since he was re-creating a revolutionary work Beethoven’s 1823 piece was probably the first religious work composed for the concert hall. Not only was this a musical first, but it was symbolic of the 19th Century doubts about religion itself. Not exactly “secularizing” it, but expanding the rigid Church ritual into the burgeoning new Humanism, the Middle Class. In a sense, he explored the possibilities of transposing medieval Latin Litany into an emotional experience.

Sir Colin once suggested that English be substituted for old language, but his Missa Solemnis used the traditional Greek opening and Latin prayers. Beethoven, though, could have used any words he wanted, for this is a most dramatic work. (Even the repeated “Grant Us Peace” resembled war threats between sworn enemies.)

Beethoven, though, was raised a Catholic at the end of the Age of Faith, and there was no doubt he believed the words of the Mass in his own way. His personality, though, was orchestral and symphonic. Thus, Sir Colin inevitably conducted this piece for the wholeness of the statement as well as the orchestral-choral forces involved.

And what forces they were! From the opening all too short Kyrie to that puzzlingly military Agnus Dei, the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus gave the game away that this was concert, not church. The sounds were all hefty and muscular, the choral eruption of the Gloria came as a gunshot explosion. In my score, the Credo is marked “With devotion”, but devotion, in Beethoven’s sense meant thunderous affirmation of belief. Thus, the London Symphony Chorus, under Sir Colin soared, with the sopranos of the chorus ascending angelically, just as the fugue ending the section was executed with flawless good sense.

H. Juntunen (© Heikki Kuuli)

One must think of the soloists as an ensemble, since there were few solos, but both ladies, Helen Juntunen and the wonderful Sarah Connolly were splendid. I found Paul Groves rather forced in the difficult tenor role, but Matthew Rose was excellent. Not operatic like Ms. Juntonen, perhaps, but with the right reverence.

One little problem. When First Violin Gordan Nikolitch stood in front of the singers during his long solo of the Sanctus, the visual sight was unnervingly like a scene from L’Histoire du Soldat. Still, the sound was lovely.

One could not call this either a reverential or an explosive Berlioz-style performance. It was Sir Colin Davis–so deserving of that special applause even before the first notes–which made the Missa Solemnis such a regal evening.

Harry Rolnick



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