Some wit once described Verdi's Requiem as 'the best opera he never wrote'. Hearing Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort and Players perform the Missa Solemnis made me wonder whether this bon mot couldn't be applied to Beethoven and his great work instead.
It's a piece that sounds like no other in the composer's output and one, with its sudden, unexpected shifts and divinely eccentric touches, that can be hard to bring off. McCreesh's reading was fleet-footed and alert to all these pitfalls, though. To borrow another quotation, this time from a less likely source, this was a reading that managed to 'float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.'
Of course, part of the enjoyment was down to the quality of the orchestra and the chorus. The band was modest in dimensions and so well equipped to respond to McCreesh's detailed reading; the chorus of thirty-eight produced a wonderfully full tone but was likewise agile, managing particularly well in some of the breakneck speeds chosen for the contrapuntal passages. There was also a high quality quartet of soloists: Susan Gritton stepped in comfortably to the indisposed Miah Persson's shoes (although she seemed a little reluctant to sing quietly, particularly in the 'Benedictus'), mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotjin sang well if not excitingly, Werner Güra was an impassioned tenor soloist and bass Neal Davies was his usual stylish self.
What made this reading stand out was the impeccable attention to detail. Beethoven's score is miraculous for reacting to the minutiae of the Mass text, and it is in some ways more operatic than Fidelio: the fear he conjures up in the bellicose episodes of the 'Agnus Dei', the contrast in the 'Credo' between the sorrow at Jesus' death and the delirious joy at his resurrection, the chaste beauty of the violin solo in the 'Benedictus', the frenzied joyousness in the Gloria at 'Laudamus te, benedicimus te'. All of these moments were given the attention they deserved and McCreesh was particularly fine in emphasising the contrasts that make these dramatic touches so effective. So many instrumental details which can be subsumed were given space in the texture. Quite apart from the glorious violin solo in the 'Benedictus', beautifully played with sweet tone and sparing vibrato by leader Catherine Martin, there was the properly wispy and ethereal flute solo as the vocal quartet takes up 'et incarnatus est de Spiritu Sancto'.
The bassoons, who have a large role throughout the piece, were particularly fine. They were gloriously unbuttoned and reedy in the several exposed, high-lying passages, even if there were a couple of intonation issues coming into the 'benedictus', mainly from the unwieldy period contra-bassoon. Adrien Perruchon's timpani – evidently a nightmare to keep in tune since he spent most of his tacet passages surreptitiously tweaking and testing – were a constant delight. They maintained their nimble timbre throughout the dynamic range and combined with the trombones and trumpets in the passages of glorification and shock wonderfully, creating a real sense of drama with no loss of agility.
Throughout, McCreesh directed without the conductor's usual props: there was no podium and he managed without a baton. His control was evident though, carefully marshalling his chorus through the trickier passages, which they negotiated at some very swift speeds with considerable virtuosity. He took some risks to create contrasts between the moments of joy and sorrow; with less responsive forces at his disposal, these could easily have fallen apart. It says something, then, for the sheer quality of the Gabrieli Consort and Players that they reacted to his direction with obvious relish and with virtuosity to spare.
In his programme note for this concert, David Cairns writes that 'for Beethoven, the composition of the Missa Solemnis was the supreme challenge of his life… from the first, Beethoven saw it as something far transcending earthly ceremonial.' Although obviously religious in content, it both looks back across the history of Western sacred music and in its scope breaks through the formal expectations of that tradition. As a result, it's a work that is prohibitively impractical for performance within a liturgical context but is also rarely performed in the concert hall. Therefore, this was an occasion not to be missed. One could argue that the small forces used undermined the grandeur of some of the more awe-inspiring passages, but to my ears, it was a performance that captured as many aspects of this multifaceted masterpiece as one can reasonably expect.
By Hugo Shirley