For a long time one could lament the fact that there was no definitive performance of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis on record, and make do with the best elements of the recordings available: Gardiner's (rather too tidily English) clarity and speed, Karajan's (largely rhetorical, often meaningless) command, Bernstein's (overpushed) heartfelt commitment, and so on. Wilhelm Furtwangler, whom I esteem above all other Beethoven conductors, considered himself inadequate to conduct what Beethoven himself, at least for a time, regarded as his greatest work. We are fortunate that Jascha Horenstein made a very serious attempt at it and that it was recorded. The sound is fairly good mono at best, but you can hear everything, and it is a performance of tremendous power and commitment. Horenstein's formal grasp of this immense piece is obvious from early on and his expressive power is unstinting throughout. The solo singing is particularly fine, and I have never heard any conductor find the through-line of the Agnus Dei/Dona nobis pacem last movement: for a long time I thought that Beethoven, the greatest composer of resounding conclusions, had for once failed to end a work convincingly, but I think it no more. Horenstein partly locates the core of this last music in Beethoven's deep grief over the failure of the democratic possibilities of Europe to which he had given his heart in youth, only to lose them to Bonapartist wars and subsequent repression--a similar feeling powers the transcendent idealism of the last movement of the Ninth--and Horenstein, with his deep experience of the 20th Century's disasters and his capacity for registering depths of despair--think of his great, unsparing BBC recording of Mahler's Ninth--finds a power and continuity in this music that no one else has touched, and the chiming of Pacem, Pacem at the finish no longer sounds tacked on or unachieved but the earned, resounding triumph of Beethoven's visionary, heartfelt, striving artistry. In one of his few obviously Furtwanglerian moves, Horenstein takes a ritardando clearly implied in Beethoven's writing so that the last pages feel like an enormous, fulfilled outbreath of peace and mercy found at the end of long struggle. Eugen Jochum's superb recording of the Missa was only very briefly available on CD, and his full-hearted faith gave wonderful voice to Beethoven's complex utterance, but Horenstein's ability to also confront the annihilation of hope goes beyond Jochum's noble musicmaking to give us a more complete and profound Missa Solemnis, I think, than has been achieved on record by anyone before. No one who loves Beethoven will want to be without this recording. Horenstein's reading of the Unfinished is also very fine.
The preceding paragraph was written when this recording was new to me, over a year ago. Further listening has only increased my appreciation of it. I'd like to correct the overemphasis on the last movement by pointing out the exhilaration of Horenstein's Gloria--not the fastest on record, but the perhaps most electrifying and the best understood (never mind that overexcited tympanist at the end)--and the deep formal intelligence at work in the Credo, for which his slow initial tempo performs a masterstroke analagous to that in the opening of his Mahler 8th. Then there is the astonishing singing of Teresa Stich-Randall, worth the price of admission on its own. The only thing I can say in demurral is that the excellent mono fails to capture the tonal glory of the solo violin in the Benedictus, for which you need another recording, the Jochum if you can find it, or good luck elsewhere. For me, this is simply one of the great recordings of all time.
Third take: I've recently spent some time with James Levine's grand version, which is almost good enough to be a hi-fi stereo backup for the Horenstein--Vienna Philarmonic, star-studded cast, unbelievable chorus, well judged tempos and architectonics--but it sounds to me as if the solo singers, especially Placido Domingo, though Jessye Norman's not far behind, are singing more for themselves than for the music, or--to put it a shade less subjectively--with a continuous breadth of vibrato more appropriate to nineteenth century opera than to what is still, however vastly expanded, a classical idiom. It's a glamorous, Hollywoodish performance of high quality that provides the histrionics and gilds the surfaces with greater attention than it gives to the depths, where Horenstein is still, as far as I know, unmatched. Also, surprisingly, the vibrato of the solo violin in the Benedictus is so broad that most of the music is effectively out of tune. On the other hand, I'm warming to the Herrweghe recording, which has always seemed a mite underpowered but now comes as something of a relief. Horenstein still rules, and I hope they'll bring back the Jochum.