One of my strongest thoughts whenever I hear Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis is gratitude that I’m having the pleasure of listening to it, rather than having to sing it, for Beethoven’s few instances of vocal writing give the singers no mercy. The Missa Solemnis is a big sing, with relentlessly long passages at the top of the vocal range for all parts, unsympathetically jagged lines and rapid switches of tempo and dynamic. It’s not the easiest work to programme either as it doesn’t fit comfortably into a standard two-half concert structure; Royal Northern Sinfonia took the sensible decision to perform it without a break, with Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music tacked onto the beginning to make a 90 minute programme. This worked well, as there is enough in the Missa Solemnis to hold the attention unbroken for that length of time, particularly when Thomas Zehetmair was taking such care to draw out all the detail of Beethoven’s surprising shifts of harmony and rhythm.

Malin Christensson © Sussie Ahlburg
Malin Christensson
© Sussie Ahlburg

After a couple of concerts where the Chorus of Royal Northern Sinfonia have been somewhat muted, and placed at ground level behind the orchestra, it was good to see them back on their risers and being given the freedom to sing out at full volume. The first Kyrie entries and the opening of the Gloria rang out in great waves of powerful sound, the latter sections of the Credo buzzed with energy, and the tricky volume changes came across sounding natural and unforced, particularly in the Kyrie. The constant high singing meant that the chorus’ diction was not as crisp as usual though, and there was the occasional uncharacteristic lapse in concentration during some entries.

The quartet of soloists were placed right in front of the choir, which worked well for blend as the solo and chorus parts dovetail together and although soprano Malin Christensson looked as if she was having to make a big effort to carry across the orchestra, she and the other three were all perfectly audible and her long soaring Amen at the end of the credo was wonderful for its strength and grace. The quartet was well matched, with four equally big, vibrant voices, making them a coherent unit – important in a work where they sing as a unit more than as individual soloists. Matthew Brook’s expressive introduction to the “Agnus Dei” was another highlight.

The first three movements of the Missa Solemnis more or less follow the pattern of earlier grand settings of the mass – contrasting sections in the Kyrie, contrasting moods in the Gloria and Credo, according to the words, and big fugal passages to end both movements. The chorus and lower strings were beautifully warm and expressive on the soft chords of et homo factus est in the Credo. During this movement, Beethoven’s orchestra gradually starts to steal the limelight from the singers, beginning with the shimmering flute solo to accompany the words de spiritu sanctus and the harsh, percussive chords in the crucifixus section suggesting hammering nails, and for the final three movements, the Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei, Beethoven completely breaks away from established patterns. An extended reverent orchestral interlude leads into a glowing Sanctus for just the solo voices – mezzo Frances Bourne shone here, as did Royal Northern Sinfonia’s three trombones, and the Benedictus is dominated not, as one might expect, by a solo voice, but a sublime violin solo, played with spiritual intensity by Bradley Creswick, around quietly reverent, chant-like singing from the chorus.

The opening of the Agnus Dei appears to return to tradition, as the soloists and choir give heartfelt pleas for mercy, then suddenly, with an artful little rhythmic skip Beethoven creates a shining Dona Nobis Pacem in triplets, given a lovely relaxed swing by the chorus, followed by a few more surprising changes of mood. The brass and percussion were crisp and clean here, and despite the contrast created by their fanfares, they retained the radiance that had been created during the triple-time sections. The whole ending of the mass became not the plea for peace suggested by the words but something else, a perhaps a celebration of peace already obtained.

The celebratory mood was appropriate, as this was the last concert for Royal Northern Sinfonia’s long-serving chorus master Alan Fearon, and after the warm applause for the choir, there were even bigger cheers when he came on to take his bow. 

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