Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis is a great compositions have been spared overexposure.
The work operates far beyond the comfort zones of most choruses, amateur and professional, and demands full attention from its performers and audiences for 70-plus minutes. It asks big questions, about life’s meaning, the nature of death and the Christian promise of eternal salvation, to which Beethoven gives no certain answers. What we hear is a vision of one man’s turbulent spiritual landscape, clouded by doubt and fear, projected into music of dramatic, often violent contrasts and expressive extremes.
John Eliot Gardiner made a revelatory studio recording of the Missa Solemnis in 1989. His latest thoughts on the work, recorded live at the Barbican Centre last year, are so strongly forged, so persuasive in intent and all-encompassing in delivery, as to defy snappy description. The conductor’s interpretation is much more than thoughtful and thought-provoking, although it is both. What he does with the music arises from the core of his identity: this Missa Solemnis is personal, driven by Gardiner’s relentless pursuit of excellence and, above, all by his own no-holds-barred battle with the creator spirit.
There are times when Gardiner stamps his mark too heavily on details of articulation here, without always carrying the conviction of his excellent musicians. It’s in the big picture that we find the true genius of Gardiner’s Beethoven, fully unleashed in the work’s Gloria and Credo and always alive to moments of transcendence. If you only buy one choral disc this year, make sure it’s this one.