With Beethoven’s Missa solemnis, an unsettling sense of dread always accompanies my excitement. Sir John Eliot Gardiner neatly summed it up when he compared the choir’s journey to climbing Mount Everest... but without oxygen masks. With that in mind, Philippe Herreweghe, our weathered sherpa tonight, deftly coordinated the four vocalists, the Rotterdam Philharmonic, and his Collegium Vocale Gent through Beethoven’s Himalayan score. While his choir sounded superlative, he wasn’t able to create an elevating synergy with the orchestra.

Collegium Vocale Gent © Michiel Hendrickx
Collegium Vocale Gent
© Michiel Hendrickx

In the Kyrie, Herreweghe, tempering Beethoven’s bellicose score, avoided a heavy-handed opening. Among the sustained notes in the woodwind, the oboe especially delivered some beautiful colour. Then the choir joined in and Herreweghe combined the moderately playing Rotterdam ensemble with the razor-sharp clarity of his Flemish troupe. When Carolyn Sampson made her entrance she impressed with her voice, but her disarming best was yet to come.

Herreweghe then triggered Beethoven’s Gloria. Stupendous fortissimos were delivered. The CVG proved its first class reputation with clear diction, powerful volume and its utmost transparency. Herreweghe controlled Beethoven’s deafening sound and fury, resulting in a refined and restrained RPhO. Although with this subdued approach, Herreweghe did inspire a sense of wonder, perhaps similar to the one faith contains, especially in the calmer passages, when the orchestra reached a subtle pianissimo, laced with woodwind timbres.

Herreweghe opened the Credo with the orchestra neatly in Allegro ma non troppo. With the Resurrexit, he created monumental energy. Then the CVG launched into the blizzard of Beethoven’s closing fugue. With the choir in high gear, Herreweghe produced some mindblowing moments.

After the orchestral opening of the Sanctus, the concertmaster delivered his violin solo with great delicacy, though I wished it could have been a bit more piercing. But Igor Gruppman did sustain a captivating tension instead; however subdued, musical precision resonated in of each of his notes, gently hypnotising in a welcome manner.

In front of the choir, nestled between the horns and strings, the four soloists sang impressively, and each had their moments in the spotlight. Florian Boesch’s controlled baritone resonated gently during the Agnus Dei. A great solemnity resonated from him. As Herreweghe neatly weaved the voices with each other, Sampson reached magnificent heights, trumping everything before.

Ann Hallenberg’s deep and rounded voice reached far into the auditorium, only to be overwhelmed by the volume of the choir. Benjamin Hulett shared a similar fate, as he intoned his voice with fragility, something that worked when he sang solo, but he was to be drowned out by the power of the CVG. The soloists were perhaps placed too close to the choir for comfort.

Herreweghe tempered the fiery brilliance of the RPhO. That and a lack of volume and transparency detracted from the concert. The strings, for example, burned with a tepid red glow, lacking their usual fury. Granted, Beethoven’s score is dense, but Herreweghe is a master at fine-tuning, layering and generating a symbiosis of great grandeur between orchestra and choir; this was lacking here. But with the choir functioning at its best, one cannot deny tonight delivered several resounding moments.