An overwhelming Missa Solemnis from the Orpheus

PSATHAS – Luminous

BEETHOVEN – Missa Solemnis

Emma Fraser (soprano) / Bianca Andrew (mezzo-soprano)

Cameron Barclay (tenor) / Kieran Rayner (baritone)

Orpheus Choir

Vector Wellington Orchestra

Marc Taddei (conductor)

Welliington Town Hall

Sunday, 29th April 2012

Along with his last symphony, which he finished at about the same time, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, completed in 1824, is justly reckoned to be the finest and grandest of his public utterances as a composer. One commentator went so far as to term the work  a “sacred symphony, one whose secular counterpart (the Ninth Symphony) followed shortly afterwards”.

The composer called the Mass “my greatest work”, which perhaps explains in part the somewhat bewildering duplicity with which he arranged to receive advances for the work from at least six publishers before settling on a seventh, as well as privately selling ten prepublished copies to various royal patrons. Obviously Beethoven wished that what he held so dear ought to be similarly regarded by the outside world, more especially so as his financial circumstances at the time of writing the Mass were even worse than usual.

Financial considerations aside, Beethoven’s intention, according to letters written to his patron, the Archduke Rudolf, was “to awaken lasting religious feelings both in the singers and in the audience…..there is nothing loftier than to come nearer the Deity than others and, and from here to distribute the heavenly rays among Mankind….”. With these sentiments firmly in mind, the words “Mit Andacht” (With devotion), found written over the opening of the score, is the overriding instruction for the performers.

Which is all well and good, except that those same performers are confronted with a work bristling with difficulties, one whose composer demonstrated little concern at various places throughout the score for ordinary human capabilities. At almost any stage in the work’s performing history, it seems as though its challenges have been emphasized almost to the exclusion of its actual content – thus the Musical Times of 1882 pronounced in no uncertain terms that “The work is impossible. No human lungs can withstand the strain imposed by it.”  And despite today’s orchestral and choral standards being of the level of technical excellence hitherto undreamed of, critics and listeners continue to report performance woes and mishaps – this from a review of a recent London performance, for example:

Time and time again could be heard many of the soprano singers striving to meet Beethoven’s very severe demands on them, only to be undermined by a substantial number of their colleagues merely screaming at the note and missing. The tenors too were often wild, with individual voices coming through. That Beethoven’s demands are severe should not mean that listeners have to make allowances……”

Of course, Beethoven’s score for the Missa Solemnis has long been cited, along with various of his “late” works as embodying the idea that the composer refused to compromise his artistic vision to the limitations of instruments and musicians of his era – – hence his oft-quoted reply to a violinist who complained that a passage in one of his last quartets was virtually unplayable: – “Do you think I care about your miserable violin when the Spirit speaks to me?” – in other words, the idea counted far more than its execution.

All of which gives the impression to the uninitiated listener that the Missa Solemnis is a kind of intractable musical monster, created by a somewhat deranged creative spirit – certainly some of Beethoven’s contemporaries were shocked by what they actually heard of it, particularly the militaristic interpolations towards the end of the work’s final movement, the “Agnus Dei” –  a hapless critic lamented “what these strange trumpet-fanfares, the mixing in of recitative, the fugued instrumental section, which only destroys the flow of ideas…..what the hollow, unrhythmical bizarre timpani strokes are intended to mean, only dear Heaven knows…”. Of course, succeeding generations of music-lovers have more readily accepted Beethoven’s revolutionary attitudes to traditional form and expression – writing as early as 1861 the acerbic critic Eduard Hanslick, after hearing a performance, wrote about the work’s “sublime ideas” and admired its creator’s “double majesty of genius and adversity”. In this sense the composer was correct when he remarked to a friend “my music is not for this, but for a later time”.

Even in our time the work has the power to startle and surprise listeners unprepared for its boldness and daring. And these were precisely the qualities which were brought to the fore by the Orpheus Choir, the Vector Wellington Orchestra and four radiantly-voiced soloists under Marc Taddei in the Wellington Town Hall on Sunday afternoon. The concert actually featured another, shorter work as a kind of prelude, John Psathas’s fanfare Luminous, one whose intensities, though very different to those of the Missa Solemnis activated both our sensibilities and the sound-vistas of the hall, and put us in a “tingling” frame of mind, ready for the coruscations of  the Beethoven work. I thought that, in this respect, it was good programming, even if I for one would have been happy with having the Mass as a “stand alone” experience.

Throughout the whole of the first part of the work, the Kyrie, Gloria and Credo, Beethoven is in his grandest, most imposing mode, with energy and drama to the fore, and frequent contrasts between fast and slow, loud and soft, music with “attitude writ large”. By contrast, the two following movements, the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei, are generally more intimate and personal-sounding, apart from a few irruptions of energy (at the words “Pleni sunt coeli in terra” during the Sanctus, for example, and during the latter part of the Agnus Dei, when the composer reminds his listeners all too palpably of the horrors of war).

I would doubt that there’s another work in the standard repertoire that puts a choir through its paces to the extent that this one does – throughout these first three movements the energy levels of the singers are taxed to an incredible extent. Very wisely, Marc Taddei called for a “tuning-break” between the Gloria and the Credo, one which I appreciated as well, as one is otherwise literally bounced by the composer from one alpine peak to another, between the two sections. But in general, I could have wept for joy at the strength, power and beauty of the Orpheus Choir’s  singing throughout. Such a great deal is required by the composer of his singers, and I thought the choir’s stirring commitment to the task was as much a tribute to its Music Director Mark Dorrell as to the other “Marc” who directed the performance with such inspirational élan and all-encompassing energy.

As for two or three places where the choir was pushed fractionally beyond its limits by the conductor, such as the fugal conclusion of the Credo and the aforementioned “Pleni sun coeli” in the Sanctus, the momentary ensemble imprecisions proclaimed a certain spirit of risk-taking, of going to extremes entirely appropriate for such a work in performance – a case, perhaps, for the idea that the pursuit of perfection is in itself a greater undertaking than its actual achievement. Conductor Marc Taddei certainly seemed like a man possessed throughout, inspiring his musicians to put themselves on the line and give it all they had. At the same time, his sense of the work’s overall structure remained admirably clear-sighted, so that, in his hands the work sounded every bit like the masterpiece that it’s reputed to be.

Heroes of equal standing were the orchestral players, every section covering itself with glory, realizing all of the work’s demands throughout – the brass I thought were outstanding, the horns in particular – and of course they all had a fine old time during the Agnus Dei, putting across Beethoven’s militarist evocations of the perils and sufferings of war. What an extraordinary sequence this made,  the raw force of the composer’s message here given plenty of power and intensity by singers and players alike, right up to the work’s somewhat abrupt ending.

Pivotal in this scheme of things were the four young soloists (all of whom, in a context of such awe-inspiring grandeur of expression, looked excessively youthful!). As it turned out, Emma Fraser, Bianca Andrew, Cameron Barclay and Kieran Rayner made a veritable dream team of voices. They were placed at the back of the orchestra and in front of the choir, as though they were singing in an integrated space, rather than “out the front” – and this worked well because their voices had the heft to be clearly heard. Baritone Kieran Rayner had a little difficulty in this regard because of the lowness of some of his notes, although higher in his range the voice “told” with no impediment. All made a beautifully blended sound as well as handling their individual lines with great aplomb. Especially affecting was their singing in the Sanctus and Benedictus, sounded in tandem with the orchestra’s concertmaster Matthew Ross, whose violin solo triumphed over a couple of uncertain moments to contribute to the work’s most sublimely beautiful passages.

This was a performance that I’m sure will be talked about for a long time to come – all credit to conductor, choir, orchestra and soloists for their part in creating our very own and much-cherished version of the stuff musical legends are made of.











One thought on “An overwhelming Missa Solemnis from the Orpheus

  1. Peter Barber says:

    Congratulations to everyone on a most impressive Missa Solemnis concert. I enjoyed both the Psathas and the Beethoven, and thought that the musicians were in fine form.
    Sadly however the Beethoven was driven somewhat too quickly for the acoustic of the Wellington Town Hall. In that marvellous place one must give the music time to breathe, or run the risk of blurring one phrase into another.
    Perhaps it was where I was sitting, but I found it hard to truly appreciate the magnificent structures of the Missa, and my general impression was of unrelieved uniformity of tempo and mood.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *