Missed Beethovenian Opportunity

Beethoven – Missa Solemnis.

Marlis Petersen (sop), Elisabeth Kulmann (mez), Werner Güra (ten), Gerald Finley (bar).

Groot Omroepkoor

Koninklijk Concertgebouworkest / Nikolaus Harnoncourt

Barbican Centre, London. Sunday April 22nd.

This was my first opportunity to hear the Concertgebouworkest since their incredible Mahler 2nd with Jansons at the Barbican a few years back.  I always look forward to hearing them as I find them probably the greatest orchestra on the planet right now.  Today, the playing was absolutely superb.  Apart from a few fluffs in the horns this was playing of the very highest distinction.  Harnoncourt had the strings playing without vibrato and it really worked with the depth of the tone, especially at the start of the Sanctus, really quite remarkable.

The singing of the Groot Omroepkoor was very good. The men of the chorus were especially fearless, the ladies slightly less so.  There was too much of the sopranos not quite hitting their entries unanimously.  Still they made the whole thing sound effortless which is quite an achievement given the extreme demands Beethoven makes on his performers.

The effortlessness I think was part of the problem.  This is a work of extremes, one that pushes the performers to their limits.  Today in Harnoncourrt’s hands it just sounded dull.  Tempi were incredibly sedate – the ‘et vitam venturi’ fugue that really calls out to be taken at a tempo that is just one notch away from disaster seemed to just amble along.  The start of the Gloria just didn’t rocket away in the way that it should have.  A lot of the rhythms felt a bit four-square and lacked suppleness.  The whole performance cried out for someone with the dynamism of Mackerras or van Immerseel to take it in hand and drive it to the next level.  That is not to say that there was nothing to admire – the start of the Sanctus in particular was beautifully done as was the Benedictus.  I just wish the concertmaster had done without the vibrato that he added.

The soloists were on the whole very good.  Marlis Petersen was completely comfortable in the soprano part yet failed to dominate the quartet in the way that she should have.  Elisabeth Kulmann was an excellent mezzo soloist – she has a beautiful ruby red voice – in fact, she is the best I’ve heard in this work since Jessye Norman on the Levine recording.  Werner Güra was a mellifluous tenor soloist – there was some loss of quality when he sang quietly but otherwise he was very good.  Finally, Gerald Finley really impressed.  When I saw him listed I worried that he would not have the gravitas required for the bass part but in the event the start of the agnus dei was very good.

Overall, this felt like a missed opportunity.  I felt that Harnoncourt just failed to realize the extremes and the superhuman nature of this piece.  It is especially a shame since he had such excellent forces at his disposal.

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