Beethoven: Mass in C

Sally Matthews, Sara Mingardo, John Mark Ainsley, Alastair Miles, LSO/C. Davis (LSO Live LSO0594)

25 September 2008 4 stars

Beethoven's Mass in CThis recording of Beethoven's Mass in C, based on a concert at the Barbican on 26 February 2006, has been a long time coming – the London Symphony Orchestra's in-house record label is normally quick at turning round its releases nowadays – but it's been well worth the wait.

I recall the live event as showing the LSO at its best, with Sir Colin Davis at his most inspiring and the London Symphony Chorus raising the roof with their typical commitment. The CD seems to have captured those qualities brilliantly.

Long regarded as a poor relation to the Missa solemnis, the Mass in C is nevertheless a fascinating work. As Lindsay Kemp explains in the liner notes, Beethoven believed in God but had no time for organised religion; combined with the general decline in interest in church music in Vienna, this meant that he contributed only a handful of works for the liturgy.

Yet a commission from Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy II, Haydn's former patron, proved irresistible. Esterhazy had for many years commissioned a new setting of the Mass to celebrate the name-day of his wife, Princess Marie Hermenegild. For many years, Haydn had provided the music for the occasion, followed after his retirement by Fuchs and Hummel, but in 1807 it was Beethoven's turn.

The resulting work took its cue from Haydn's models, especially from a formal (i.e. organisational) point of view, but in place of his mentor's exuberance, Beethoven wrote a Mass of inner devotion – 'the true inwardness of religious feeling', as he put it.

Colin Davis embraces that aspect in this recording, which swells with warmth but never strives to achieve a superficial excitement which the piece doesn't contain. The London Symphony Chorus is one of the cornerstones of the recording: from the opening murmur of the unaccompanied basses to the contrapuntal height of the Gloria, their sensitivity, across-the-board consistency of quality and clear diction ensures the highest standards are met.

That's no less the case with the LSO themselves. Though Davis is of course no advocate of the period performance practice movement, there's a sense that the musicians are keyed into the light, Classical style that influenced the work, rather than larding on so much Romantic vibrato as to remove Beethoven from his musico-historical context. The strings play with incision, not least in the vigorous fugal conclusion to the Credo, while Sir Colin's love of woodwind instruments comes through in the space given to their prominent solos.

The vocal soloists work well as a team, though individually they are up against competition from their forebears on record whom they don't quite eclipse. Nevertheless, soprano Sally Matthews carries the work strongly, with John Mark Ainsley always a stylish interpreter of this period of music. Sara Mingardo's distinctive tone is well suited to Beethoven's emphatic writing, though her vibrato is fast in places, while Alastair Miles is an authoritative presence as the bass soloist and always treats the music idiomatically.  

As a bonus track, LSO Live has included the performance of the Prisoners' Chorus from the LSO's acclaimed recording of Fidelio. Again, Davis and his orchestra combine with the LSC to thrilling effect, but I'm not sure it's the most impressive way to fill out a CD whose main work lasts only about forty-six minutes. Could not a Beethoven overture or two have been added to provide a more meaningful addition that did not duplicate an already-available recording?

But despite this small caveat, what the LSO has produced is stirring stuff and a complete bargain.

By Dominic McHugh