By Jonathan Blumhofer
A captivating and thought-provoking version of Missa solemnis from René Jacobs and his forces; the Michael Gielen Edition is one of this Beethoven anniversary-year’s highlights.
The ninth volume of SWR’s Michael Gielen Edition is one of this Beethoven anniversary-year’s crowning achievements. A handsome, nine-disc collection, it brings together all of the conductor’s recordings of Beethoven’s symphonic works for that label, which span nearly 40 years.
At the heart of it stands Gielen’s 1997-2000 complete symphony cycle with the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg. It’s an excellent, if slightly under-the-radar, set. Tempos are fleet (Gielen largely took Beethoven’s metronome markings at face value), textures lean, and the performances all brim with character.
The first four symphonies dance impressively, even where you mightn’t expect them to (like in the First’s slow movement or the Third’s opening one).
In the Fifth, Gielen’s straightforward approach doesn’t uncover anything new in these familiar pages. But he lets the music make a case for itself – and, in case anyone has forgotten, this proves a good reminder of just how potent Beethoven’s musical logic is.
The first three movements of Gielen’s Sixth are the picture of direction, transparency, and character (the Symphony’s second movement is played with a radiance that one encounters very rarely, from either period or modern ensembles). While the latter pair aren’t sluggish or dull, there’s some let-down of urgency in them (especially the finale).
That’s not much of an issue in the Seventh – which is well-shaped and lilting – or the Eighth, whose droll character seems to throw too many conductors for loops. Not Gielen: there’s no shortage of whimsical character to be had here, especially in the playfully pulsing second movement (with its exemplary woodwind playing) and the flowing third.
Crowning it all is an epic, snapping recording of the Ninth that revels in all of the score’s radical impulses, particularly its rhythmic ambiguities and insane juxtapositions of all things musical.
The consistency of Gielen’s approach to Beethoven interpretation is underlined by the inclusion of duplicate performances of several of the symphonies, the earliest going back to 1969 and ’70.
To be sure, those first ones – a pairing of the First and Seventh Symphonies with the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Saarbrücken, plus a Third Symphony from the Radio-Sinfonie-Orchester Frankfurt and a Fifth with the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR – are technically and sonically rougher than not. But they’re largely stylish and nimble, all the same (the Saarbrücken Seventh is conspicuously well shaped, especially its Allegretto).
A further recording of the Third, this a 1980 taping from Cincinnati (where Gielen was music director from 1980 to 1986), is, like his better-recorded 2000 one from Baden-Baden, a knockout: taut and vigorous in the outer movements, fluent and focused in the second, with the horns ripping gloriously in the third’s Trio.
Filling out the set is a strongly sung account of the Mass in C (featuring soprano Nicola Beller Carbone, mezzo-soprano Stella Doufexis, tenor Christian Elsner, bass Rudolf Rosen, plus the SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart), and a collection of shorter orchestral works, including several overtures. Most intriguing among the latter is Gielen’s own string-orchestra arrangement of the op. 130 Grosse Fugue. Echoes of Bartók and Schoenberg – two composers the late conductor championed throughout his career – abound in it, though the surprisingly abysmal recorded sound (the reading only dates from 1993) robs the performance of its discreet spatial effects.
Nevertheless, it’s a bracing adaptation and a compelling inclusion in this volume that manages to pay a lively tribute to the cornerstone of Western classical music as well as one of his finest – if most inexplicably under-heralded and unfamiliar – interpreters.
Late last year, René Jacobs’s recording of Beethoven’s Leonore (the original conception of what has, after numerous revisions, come to be known as the opera Fidelio) helped inaugurate the composer’s sestercentennial. Now, Jacobs’s new reading of the Missa solemnis effectively marks the end of it.
Premiered nearly two centuries ago, Beethoven’s Missa remains one of the composer’s toughest nuts to crack. It’s long (the present performance clocks in at a relatively-swift 72 minutes); famously difficult to sing; and, with its subtle theological text paintings and commentaries – not to mention requisite contrasts of tone, mood, texture, and color – a veritable interpretive quagmire.
That Jacobs and his forces navigate its thickets so fluently is impressive on its own. What’s more, they largely embrace the Missa’s inherent weirdness – its unpredictable phrase structures, nervous questioning gestures, peculiar liturgical illustrations, and the like – and, if they don’t tie up all of the music’s loose ends on just a few hearings, well, that says more of the composer and the enormity of his subject matter than anything else. Ultimately, the portrait we get here is captivating and though-provoking.
Taped in May 2019, the album brings together an impressive quartet of soloists – soprano Polina Pastirchak, mezzo-soprano Sophie Harmsen, tenor Steve Davislim, and bass Johannes Weisser, plus the RIAS Kammerchor Berlin and Freiburger Barockorchester.
Accordingly, this Missa is dazzlingly sung. Balances between and among soloists and choir is flawless throughout. Beethoven’s treacherous, stratospheric vocal parts never sound as such: they’re consistently in tune, not to mention executed with impressive agility. Throughout, the vigorous contrapuntal writing speaks with breathtaking clarity, especially during the “Gloria’s” “In gloria Dei patris” and “Credo’s” “Consubstantialem” and “Et vitam venturi” fugues.
There’s plenty of subtle character to be found in this performance, too, from the pungent dissonances in the reprise of the “Kyrie” to the devotional transition “Praeludium” to the “Benedictus.” And, for strength of dramatic contrasts, one can hardly do better than the Janus-like variations of mood and texture Jacobs draws from his forces in the “Agnus Dei”: tentative, bleak, fragmentary in the “Agnus Dei” supplications, dancing with unaffected abandon in the “Dona nobis pacem.”
To be sure there are some quirky moments here and there. The orchestral playing is sometimes a bit raw (especially at the beginning of the “Credo”) and occasionally sounds thin (parts of the “Sanctus” and “Dona nobis pacem”). The violin solo during the “Benedictus,” while spotlessly in tune, could be a shade warmer; what’s more, its mix of intermittent portamento with minimal vibrato is peculiar. And the choir’s Germanic pronunciation of the Latin text is occasionally distracting.
But, given the successes of this performance – the beautifully blended singing, overarching sense of the line, rhythmic clarity, textural transparency, and sheer brio of the ensemble – these are small complaints. Indeed, if ever there was a moment to revisit Beethoven’s visionary (and slightly irreverent) reconsideration of traditional dogmas, this is it. Taken together with an illuminating conversation between Jacobs and Martin Bail in the booklet, this is a Missa for 2020 and beyond.
Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.