Performing Beethoven’s Missa solemnis and running a marathon have at least one thing in common: pacing is crucial to both. Start too fast or enthusiastically, and you run out of steam in the later stages. In last night’s concert, there were signs of fatigue midway through but the energy and utter commitment of all the principal parties involved compellingly carried it off.

Cristian Măcelaru © David Swanson
Cristian Măcelaru
© David Swanson

It was a courageous decision to conclude this season with Beethoven’s magnificent Missa Solemnis. It is a highly complex work both for performers and audiences alike, and with its leviathan nature, myriad of styles, celestial aspirations and not forgetting the herculean demands made on the chorus, it is truly awe-inspiring. It is the musical equivalent of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel; in short, one of the most sublime artistic creations ever, which mirrors the heavenly reality it depicts and transcends our human nature. It is no surprise that Beethoven himself should have considered it as “my greatest work”.

Visiting conductor, Cristian Măcelaru, elected for a spacious tempo for the opening Kyrie, observing the natural flow of the music while he harnessed the explosive outbursts of the Gloria to great effect, the intricate fugal lines crackling with energy. One of the many complex demands within this piece is balancing the powerful sections with those moments of peace and calm and this Măcelaru successfully achieved through elasticity of rhythm and a translucent, highly nuanced tonal palette. The peace-filled pianissimo he elicited from the NSO at the start of the Sanctus was little short of magical.

Special praise goes to the RTÉ Philharmonic Choir for their valiant, lung-testing efforts throughout the Missa. The rich sound-world of the Kyrie that filled the concert hall was never-forced but always focused and fulsome. The fervour of the Gloria was palpable, each member singing their hearts out, giving the heavenly chorus a good run for their money. The subdued, peaceful tone at “et in terra pax hominibus” highlighted clearly the meaning of the words while the lines “qui tollis” soared with an intense lyricism. The dramatic sweep of the Quoniam tu solus sanctus tested the chorus even further. They sang at full throttle at the top of their range and unsurprisingly it sounded a little hoarse at times. There was a well-merited pause after this movement, before the vocal-busting Credo got under way. There was a wonderful monastic hush to the monophonic line of “Et incarnatus est” while the subito piano echo from the chorus on “pro nobis” was wonderfully done. There were some signs of strain though among the chorus towards the end with the sopranos fraying on “Et expecto” while there was a distinct lack of pep in the fugal Amen. A short break, the wall passed and the Philharmonic Chorus had got its second wind, singingly lustily to the end.

The demands made on the quartet of soloists, Eleanor Dennis, Rachel Kelly, Robin Tritschler and Marcus Farnsworth were no less than those made on the chorus. Individually, they were very impressive, each possessing mellifluous voices. Tritschler, in particular, impressed with his intense lyricism and sensitively shaped lines of music. Collectively, the balance could have been more smoothly blended: Dennis’ soaring lines instead of weaving with the others contrapuntal offerings tended to dominate at the expensive of the others while Farnsworth’s part was frequently swallowed up in this complex sound-world. It was not until we came to the opening of the Agnus Dei that Farnsworth put heft into his tone, imbuing his lines with tender sadness. Kelly showed great feeling in her lines in the Benedictus and in the way in which she unfurled the delicate tendrils of her melody in the Sanctus. Dennis, who possesses a sweet, flexible voice, frequently impressed with her effortless ascents.

Finally, the NSO were on top form, playing with tremendous vim and vigour from start to finish, imbuing their parts with rhythmic vitality and giving of their all as Măcelaru whipped them to near frenzy in the Gloria. It was not only the moment of fireworks which were spectacular; the opening of the Sanctus possessed a great stillness to it too that was utterly compelling. So too was the gentle cello section in the short Praeludium. Special mention goes to leader Helena Wood for her intensely expressive violin solo in the Benedictus. Măcelaru brought the drama to the fore in the Angus Dei with its ominous military timpani and trumpets offset by the choral cries for peace. As the crisis continues in Syria one couldn’t help but think how true those cries for peace ring out still today.