on 28 November 2010
Although, ultimately, such a claim must be futile (for what categories do we have to assess such questions?) it has often been argued that Bach's B minor Mass and Beethoven's Missa Solemnis are the two supreme peaks of all music. That is in itself of considerable interest. I mean that these two works, settings of the essence of the Christian faith, are prime contenders for this (specious) honour. Is not that fact alone some sort of palpable proof that `the kingdoms of this world shall become the kingdom of... Christ'?
If the proposition, that these two works are supreme, is accepted (for all its pointlessness - who are we likely to convince not already convinced?) then I believe Beethoven's Missa to be the greater. That Bach's B minor Mass is, to a very large degree, a utilisation of previously composed music, music composed to texts other than the Mass, carries an implication that Beethoven's work is the greater, the more direct, subtle, psychologically, spiritually and theologically sensitive exposition of the text. The miracle, and miracle it undoubtedly is, is that Bach's B minor Mass is such a prodigy of musical and spiritual integrity.
Until recently I would have suggested that Klemperer's performance with the New Philharmonia was the supreme recorded version of the Missa Solemnis. I have known, loved and lived with that version since it was released and it has claimed my attention beyond all others - an account that possesses an innate truthfulness that few, if any, in my experience, rival let alone surpass.
Then, very recently (and far too late) I have been privileged to listen to Giulini's recording (with the London Philiharmonic, Heather Harper, Janet Baker, Robert Tear, Hans Sotin and the New Philharmonia Chorus). Giulini directs a performance that is magnificent and sublime.
From the opening orchestral phrases the performance is informed by a profound sense of understanding and commitment. The Missa Solemnis contains (you might almost say, consists of) a secession of seemingly desperate, inchoate ideas. The connecting thread is the text and the inchoate nature of the piece is itself an acknowledgement of the reality the text expresses, the incomprehensible transcendence of the the truths in the text. The particular genius of Giulini's performance is that it is a thoroughly integrated whole. Not by imposing an 'order' on the work but by a profound insight into both the musical and the theological texts. The whole work flows like liquid gold; the most testing transitions are woven with exquisite sensitivity into a seamless robe. Climactic moments are realised with overpowering majesty or terror, as the case requires. Passages of hushed awe conveyed with intense reverence, where all is suspended in a stasis of breathless devotion. The entire work is illuminated by Giulini's consummate comprehension of and identification with the score in its depths and breadth. If ever it was true that `our end is in our beginnings' it is true here.
The ideally focused recording permits the precise articulation of soloists and choir to carry the text with clarity and precision. Equally, the orchestra is presented with a naturally warm tone and balance. The dynamic range is impressive: from the mere whisperings of the Et Incarnatus...' and Sanctus, to the blazing affirmations of the Gloria and `Et resurrexit..'. The recorded balance, dynamic range and tonal truthfulness are aspects where, as a recording (as opposed to a performance) Giulini's version is far superior to Klemperer's.
As a performance I would suggest that Guilini's more `finished' manner is possibly closer to the score than Klemperer's `rough hewn' style. What I mean here is that Guilini's polished granite seems to follow better the contours of Beethoven's blueprint, Beethoven's meticulously composed score; whereas Klemperer's rugged chisel-etched sculpture, mightily impressive as it is, represents a style not wholly congruent with Beethoven's astute, immeasurably painstaking and minute attention to even the smallest detail in his score.
Be that as it may, listening to Guilini's version, after some fifty years of listening to a succession of magnificent recordings of the Missa, has opened up to me previously unrecognised psychological, emotional and, above all, theological aspects of this peerless composition.