Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis is an odd piece. Despite having a rich recorded legacy, it is not a piece that one encounters often in the concert hall. The technical challenges of this music are up there with virtually any other piece of combined music for choir and orchestra. As performed by the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique and the Monteverdi Choir last night, its difficulty was dispatched with an awe-inspiring fervor. In doing so, this titanic masterpiece was illuminated for me as never before: one with stylistic techniques grounded in the Baroque tradition, but with a post-Enlightenment liberty of expression and late-Classical palette of harmonic color.
Nearing the conclusion of what must be a grueling one-week, transatlantic tour, Sir John Eliot Gardiner and his forces were in fine shape. Sure, there were a few suspect attacks by some of the winds, playing on period-style instruments, but the cohesiveness of all involved was nothing short of breathtaking, resulting in an irrepressible character of expression. The Monteverdi Choir may be the most dynamic choral group I have ever heard. Their ability to be as nimble, powerful, and communicative as they were while flawlessly executing this demanding music was truly awesome. This was evident from their opening phrases in the Kyrie. The contrast between the first two and last syllables of “Kyrie” was executed with an overwhelming difference in dynamics while keeping the vitality of tone. Most thrillingly, the Monteverdi Choir truly have at least two levels of forte, as shown throughout the evening, particularly at the conclusions of the Gloria. Just when it seemed they were at their loudest, there was another gear they switched into that produced an overwhelming level of sound, that was always beautiful and in control. It was quite remarkable, especially given the relatively few 36 singers in the ensemble.
Furthermore, all sections did a wonderful job at creating a uniformly pleasing tone, no matter the circumstances. The sopranos, in particular, sang with a “straight” tone that always had plenty of resonance and color, with accurate intonation. Balances were fine throughout the evening with the fugal entrances easily cutting through the texture. Speaking of texture, the clarity achieved by the Orchestra Révolutionnaire et Romantique was revelatory. Their proficiency, particularly with the breakneck speed of the Gloria, was astounding. The upper strings navigated Beethoven’s endless runs with shape and exactness. It would be easy for this piece to degenerate into a shouting match, but there was no danger of that in this performance. The orchestra’s balance with the singers, even when the brass attacked homophonically with the choir, was perfectly judged. The violin soloist (whose name was omitted from the program), played a pure and beautiful obbligato in the Sanctus that soared above the rest of the orchestra.
All four soloists, despite some being young up-and-comers, were on par with virtually any vocal quartet that could be singing this music today. Led by soprano Elisabeth Meister’s powerful yet focused sound, they all had a rare flexibility of voice that suited the maestro’s occasionally manic tempi. Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnston has a uniquely rich, low voice that was warm and pliant. Tenor Michael Spyres sang with a secure technique which, while lyric, had plenty of squillo. His is a special voice. Matthew Rose sang with a rich bass voice that was powerful enough to balance out the orchestra, even at the nadir of his range.
Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s vision for this piece is utterly convincing. His reading of the Kyrie was fluid with plenty of rubato but not excess. His Gloria was astonishing in its speed. Gardiner coaxed the exuberance of Beethoven’s dance-like rhythms across the sections. His youthful energy was infectious and resulted in one of the most toe-tapping, rollicking Classical dance parties I’ve ever attended. Transitions and modulations were jarring, yet precise. Yet, the sincerity of expression was what remained most convincing of the work, particularly in the Agnus Dei. Gardiner’s leadership made for an inspired performance, rather than one just technically precise. While there are good recordings and performances out there, to be sure, Gardiner’s approach surpassed them in portraying the Missa Solemnis as one of the supreme creations of musical expression in the early 19th century.