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Customer Review

on 18 March 2011
Christian Thielemann has just given us his remarkable set of Beethoven symphonies on DVD. With his new orchestra, the Dresden Staatskapelle, a quartet of very good soloists and the outstanding Sächsischer Staatsopernchor he now presents what I see as the logical and transcendental summation of all of Beethoven's works: the Missa Solemnis. The DVD competition is stiff. There is Bernstein's inimitable 1978 rendition in still acceptable sound and film, a very special interpretation by Michael Gielen (1986, nla), my long-time favorite, Sir Gilbert Levine's deeply felt and impressive reading and, finally, Fabio Luisi's recording (both 2005) with the same orchestral and choral forces as Thielemann's. The latter two certainly invite comparison: a comparison from which I'll refrain, because I can not quite warm up to Luisi's reading for purely subjective reasons. Thieleman and his excellent ensemble shine in every respect. Tempi are deliberate, as could be expected, but never drag. Despite the very large number of musicians in attendance, Thielemann keeps the sound stage as transparent and detailed as possible: this is one of his trademarks as a conductor. Without baton, he shapes every phrase, every motif to perfection, never losing his grip on the incredibly long thematic lines and on the whole beauty of this monumental edifice. I found myself spellbound by his moving interpretation, by the cohesion of everything and by his rapt attention to the score which totally involves all concerned as well as the listener. The uncompressed sound and the video are perfect. Get this and you will be elated. Now I wish, as a counterpoint, for a Missa from Paavo Järvi and his Bremer Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie: if wishes were fishes...

***

Magnificent! Five Stars

The following review deals with Nikolaus Harnoncourt's recording of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, NOT with Christian Thielemann's performance of the same work (please see my review there). Apparently there has been some confusion at Amazon about these two versions, and various comments - including the perceptive review by my much-esteemed fellow-reviewer Ian Giles -- have not been assigned properly.

We have been blessed in recent years with a slate of remarkable interpretations of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis on DVD, including Gilbert Levine's, Fabio Luisi's (both 2005), John Nelson's (2010) and Christian Thielemann's (2011) readings of what I dare consider - damn the torpedoes - the composer's greatest achievement. Direct comparisons of these readings are problematic, not only because the Missa appears to lend itself to a great variety of approaches in style and genre (as a mass, as a cantata, as a symphony with chorus and soloists, a deeply spiritual piece and/or a monumental, if unorthodox struggle with the transcendental), but also because of the very distinctive differences in the respective conductor's relationship to the score - differences which often become obvious already after several bars in the opening movement. These differences also may account, at least in part, for certain variances in the performances' tempi (total time Levine: 85 min., Luisi: 88 min., Nelson: 80 min., Thielemann: 90 min., Harnoncourt: 99 min.), however the "objective" timings can be quite deceptive: when listening to any given performance, the tempi regardless of their clock timings will sound "right" or "wrong" to you.

Harnoncourt's reading, presented in splendid Blu-ray video and audio, recorded live in Amsterdam's Concertgebouw during concerts in April 2012, is a case in point: though every individual movement is taken slightly slower than by Thielemann, the tempi feel perfect to me. Needless to say, the RCO musicians - in wisely somewhat reduced complement - play like archangels, and thanks to the recording and the collective level of excellence, every instrumental solo shines out. This transparency of orchestral textures is an essential part of the Missa's aesthetics too often sadly blotted out, especially in elephantine readings of past generations. The Netherlands Radio Choir (at home in Hilversum, if I remember correctly) is wonderful from beginning to end. Likewise, the vocal soloists are first-rate. They are placed behind the orchestra directly in front of the choir, presumably to avoid any showcasing or even the tiniest hint of an "operatic" illusion. If they seem a bit taxed on a few occasions, this is more than plausible considering Beethoven's merciless demands on his singers.

When I call this performance "magnificent" in this review's heading, it is in want of a better term: it is absolutely moving, spellbinding, enormously powerful in the more extraverted parts (Gloria; et resurrexit; the et vitam venturi fugue in the final pages of the Credo, the Hosanna) and deeply spiritual, infused with transcendental beauty in the more introspective passages. Concertmaster Liviu Prunaru (who is, to my dismay, not credited in the notes) gives a luminous, heavenly beautiful and, at the same time, unsentimental solo in the Benedictus. From the assertive, almost challenging Kyrie through the exuberant Gloria, the multi-faceted Credo, the festive Sanctus and tender Benedictus to the somber Agnus Dei - everything is done splendidly. Nikolaus Harnoncourt pauses and sits down for a few minutes both after the Gloria and the Credo, thus letting the music resonate in the ensuing silence. This is a very personal account of the Missa second to none. Enthusiastically recommended.
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