The phrase “better late than never” may have sprung to the minds of many prommers when they contemplated the prospect of Prom 54. For once, the designation of a concert as ‘Late Night’ was entirely justified, as Sir John Eliot Gardiner took to the stage of the Royal Albert Hall at around 10.20pm to conduct the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique and the Monteverdi Choir in Beethoven’s epic Missa Solemnis. A work as exhausting as it is exhilarating – for both listeners and performers – the decision to schedule this 70 minute long musical monument to finish well past most concert-goers’ bedtimes was certainly a gamble. But it paid off spectacularly, the prommers proving their passion as well as their perseverance, packing the huge hall and witnessing a wonderful performance of this timeless testament to its creator’s genius.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner © Chris Christodoulou
Sir John Eliot Gardiner
© Chris Christodoulou

John Eliot Gardiner is no stranger to conducting the Missa Solemnis, having done so 30 times now. Apparently, it doesn’t get any easier, but by now he certainly knows what to bring out from the music to prevent losing the listener in its manifold complexities. His complete familiarity with both choral and orchestral forces at this performance led to a fantastic cohesiveness of sound and expression throughout. The choir’s tone, in particular, was perfectly matched to the players’ period instrumental sound; somehow they achieved a slightly filtered choral timbre that complemented the particularities of the wood-hued winds and vibrato-less gut strings superbly. As for the brass, not much could match their often rude interjections that provide an assertive, abrasive punctuation to much of the Mass.

Lucy Crowe © Chris Christodoulou
Lucy Crowe
© Chris Christodoulou
The blend achieved by the quartet of vocal soloists was equally felicitous. Beethoven achieves a beautiful balance in the Mass between solo and choral sections, the soloists often combining to infuse a personal warmth into the sometimes imposing tutti textures. Tenor Michael Spyres and soprano Lucy Crowe were especially expressive, the latter’s handling of the demanding soprano part all the more impressive considering her heavily pregnant state. Despite having less of the limelight, the rich tones of mezzo Jennifer Johnson impressed, and Matthew Rose was suitably foreboding in the bass solo of the troubled Agnus Dei.

Contrary to the above praise of cohesion, the subdued opening of the Kyrie lacked precision, with the orchestra taking a while to settle. By the movement’s end, however, the ensemble felt far more at ease, which augured well for the manic Gloria that followed. Here, the orchestra was simply sensational, in the more plaintive sections as well as in those of extreme triumph. The players responded startlingly well to Gardiner’s every lunge, finger tremor, and facial expression, and though there was often a wealth of sonic activity taking place, it was never overwhelming: every line could be heard within the brimming texture. The quartet of soloists seemed to be bringing the movement to an end with a brilliant contrapuntal Amen, before – with classic Beethovenian inability to relinquish – the movement extended to a staggering last iteration before closing on a glorious final exclamation from the choir.

The extraordinary Credo began with much gusto, but it was the textural transformations later in the movement that distinguished it as the pinnacle of the night. No other setting of the central text of the Christian faith can be quite so physical; Beethoven’s ever-shifting textures seem an exceptionally bodily response to the composer’s engagement with the words – or at least they felt as much with this performance. It was jaw-dropping stuff.

The obligatory unexpected coda was this time a reflective one, and this more pensive mood extended into the Sanctus, before Crowe burst forth in an upward scale of exaltation for the Hosanna section. The famous violin solo of the Benedictus began with an enchanting naivety as it descended down through the range of the instrument, but as it went on the intonational issues that a period violinist has to overcome when playing without vibrato began to spoil Peter Hanson’s long solo stint. The vocal soloists more than compensated, however, in their beautifully lyrical passages.

Finally, the Agnus Dei began in imposing, almost Wagnerian fashion with the powerful Rose accompanied by dramatic stopped horns. This was not one of those sweetly reconciling Agnuses, but a desperate supplication for mercy, one that proves to have real urgency and relevance as the military drum rolls and trumpet calls add their connotations of conflict into the final prayer for peace. Pandemonium ensued in another surprising coda, as the second violins began a bizarre contrapuntal section in which syncopation, fragmentation of the string texture, stuttering wind utterances and assertive brass fanfares combine to create an unsettling, panic-stricken finale. The only hope for resolution came in the return of the redemptive homophonic choral passage on Dona nobis pacem, which offered a glimmer of hope at the very end of this incredible piece. Better late than never.