For a big choral concert to celebrate the centenary of the end of World War 1, with the King and Queen of Belgium in the audience, Berlin eschewed the choice of one of the many settings of the Requiem, preferring a work from the German Enlightenment that is supremely affirmative of humanity: Beethoven’s Missa solemnis.

Dame Sarah Connolly © Jan Capinski
Dame Sarah Connolly
© Jan Capinski

The Berlin Philharmonic is out of town, and the orchestra for the evening at the Philharmonie was Le Concert Olympique, a grouping of hand picked players who are brought together a few times a year for projects. The concert showed the joys and perils of this approach. The joys, in that much of the individual instrumental sound was gorgeous. Strings were rich and full, horns bold and supportive, woodwind interjections clear and telling. The perils came in the shape of multiple timing imperfections and poor balance. While the strings were perfectly in time with each other, entries from other instrument groups were frequently slightly off or hesitant (which presents a particular problem for trumpets played softly). For much of the work, the timpanist struggled to find perfect timing with the strings. In terms of balance, the Arnold Schoenberg Chor was swamped by the orchestra for much of the performance: they either needed larger numbers or a conductor who tamed the orchestra far more than Jan Caeyers was willing or able to do.

All this is a shame, because we had a group of musicians who seemed capable of a far more polished performance than was actually delivered. And we were treated to two outstanding pieces of solo singing, from Dame Sarah Connolly and Steve Davislim. Beethoven gives the soloists their calling cards early on: the first notes of Davislim’s "Kyrie" showed a strong, clear, ardent voice well able to shine through the orchestra, while Connolly’s first "Kyrie Eleison" was strong, nuanced, the note blooming through its length. Soprano Laura Aikin provided a lovely contrasting voice to rise above the orchestra. Bass-baritone Hanno Müller-Brachmann fared less well: his solo in the Agnus Dei revealed him to have an attractive, warm timbre, but prior to that, he had been hardly audible through the orchestral wash.

The Missa solemnis is a wonderful work, and as well as the solo singing, it provided us with plenty of moments to enjoy, from the steady, calming tread of the Kyrie to the outbursts of joy in the Gloria (“Quoniam tu solus Sanctus” was especially strong, as was the powerful ending), to a beautiful “Osanna” at the end of the Sanctus to the martial section of the Agnus Dei, played with a rather jaunty lilt. There was a great moment of theatricality with the descending scale as Christ is buried (“et sepultus est”), the music dimming to nothing at the depths of the lowest register before bursting out with a joyful “et resurrexit”. The Gloria and the Credo are often somewhat frantic – Beethoven cuts his performers little slack here – because of the sheer amount of text that’s set, but the Sanctus is both softer and gives more space to each word, and the performance here was far more credible.

In the programme note, Caeyers expresses clear views on the shape and intent of the Missa solemnis. In spite of wonderful solo contributions and orchestral timbre, the imperfections of last night’s performance prevented those views from shining through. Le Concert Olympique will be touring the Missa Solemnis in the coming month: I hope and expect the performance to tighten up as they do so.

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