Beethoven: Missa Solemnis

Brewer, Semenchuk, Groves, Milling; BBC SO/Bĕlohlávek

Barbican Hall, 6 October 2008 4 stars

Jiri BelohlavekThe BBCSO opened their 2008/2009 season on Friday last with a sure and stirring account of that most troublesome of works, Beethoven's Missa Solemnis. Their chief conductor Jiří Bĕlohlávek led the assembly, which was completed by the massed ranks of the BBC Symphony Chorus and the four vocal soloists listed above, in a performance of impressive flexibility, and poise.

The bewilderingly variegated moods, styles and material of the work preclude any conventional sense of dramatic unity from being generated in performance, of course. But by committing so strongly to the emotional conviction of each new event within the text, the performers here at least made a strong case for the innate value of the work as a vast index of potent music-symbolic epiphanies. It was a shame, then, that the performance started unusually early for the venue at 1900 (for simulcast on Radio 3 and across Europe), and that latecomers were not admitted until the Credo, a full half-hour into the eighty-five minute performance. From the looks of the disgruntled thirty or forty people that shuffled in at this point, that policy had been extremely unwelcome.

The opening Kyrie set the stall for the rest of the performance. The play on metre and accent that so enriches the Missa is immediately apparent in the choir's entry, with their distinctive dotted rhythm, on the weak beat, before the propulsive entry of the brass and percussion on the strong. This clever little ploy was dashed off with a scene-setting sense of the syntactical richness of the writing by Bĕlohlávek. By the entry of the four soloists (of whom it was clear straight away Christine Brewer was in finest, most effortless, and most affecting voice) the performance had gained a real sense of spaciousness, and grandeur. This level of impress continued into the Gloria, where plays on tempo, topic and dynamic-which by now were coming with such frequency as to be symphonically self-subversive- were given with utter conviction. The music was now tumescent with an upward surge of worship for God. The responsiveness of the musicians and singers to the conductor was intricate; vast scopes of emotional intensity were navigated in mere moments. The accruing sense of monumentality of scope of the performance was the resulting effect- both of the micro (moments of tuning and finely gradated force choreographed by the conductor), and the macro (the unilateral phrasal practice of the performers) levels of responsiveness to Bĕlohlávek.

By the Credo it was apparent that Beethoven's tactic, later taken up by Frank Loesser in his musical/opera The Most Happy Fella, of illustrating each emotional portent and image of the text with its own corresponding musical image (rather than subsuming them under a false stylistic unity), was being given a real sense of inner struggle, of urgency and strife, by the performers. The opening chorus of that third movement seemed at times as if it might fall apart at the seams (this impression is perhaps unavoidable in such a complex and inconstant work as this), but it eventually gave way to a solemn, moving incantation of the words 'et incarntus est de Spiritu Sancto'. The four soloists entered into serene counterpoint on the repeat of this line, where the women, especially, expressed a sort of prostrate tranquil beauty in the face of the divine sublime that really transfigured, for a moment, the atmosphere in the hall. The somewhat thin presence of the tenor, Paul Groves, was exposed in the lack of roundness and poor scope of projection he gave to 'Et homo factus est' (he was better at moments of greater vulnerability in the Agnus Dei), but collectively things recovered well with an explosive 'Et resurrexit'. A good head of steam was then built up over the final lines-with nice interaction from the wind players- before a transcendent vocal Amen.

Christine Brewer

The Sanctus benefited from a powerful declamation at its head from the mezzo Ekaterina Semenchuk, and from the alertness the conductor instilled into the see-saw triple metre. A ghostly spectre was brought to 'Deus Saboath'; by now the tragedy of the subject- that is the lone, desperate plea for salvation suggested by Beethoven's antic characterisation- was being called up much more frequently. The Benedictus was gorgeously pastoral, with a deeply expressive, easily and confidently enunciated ritornello underpinning by the first violinist, Stephen Bryant. The sensuousness of this interlude was further increased by (again) Christine Brewer's exultant majesty; her swooping articulation of Hosanna at the end was glorious.

The bizarre fissures of the closing Agnus Dei were navigated with aplomb and with a faintly echoing resplendence by Bĕlohlávek and his charges. The move from tutti, to timpani, to renaissance reminiscences in trumpets and drums that occurs at one point, before the fierce orchestral fugue after the choirs repeated 'Pacem', expressed definitively the highly personal, musically revolutionary, nature of the composer's achievements here. As this final section, Beethoven's own prayer for 'inner peace', moved from sombre humility to humbling fear, the sheer humanity of its creator was forcefully invoked. The closing passages were full of the sort of virtuosic, highly intricate climactic bursts Bĕlohlávek had showed himself a master of, and the ending, in all its non-triumphal glory (so unusual for the composer), was a crowning moment of modesty in this questing, ambiguous work.

By Stephen Graham

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