on June 30, 2004
I think that this recording will be fully satisfactory for those that are fans of the period performance movement, but apart from the fact that I am not a fan of the movement, the Missa Solemnis demands more than satisfactory. Beethoven considered it his greatest work, and I (along with many of his greatest interpreters) agree. However, I don't think you could tell listening to this recording alone. Gardiner seems to see the Missa Solemnis as an oportunity to show off with razzle-dazzle, fireworks-type playing, at least up until the Sanctus, and frankly, even though his tempi are very swift (as always), it gets dull after a while. Too much of a good (or in this case, well done) thing is not great, it is just overdone. He doesn't reach for the fundamental, spiritual truth of the piece, he just goes for surface effects. Compare this with Klemperer's recording. I very quickly realised listening to it that Beethoven is not just constructing a thrill-ride so that we get excited about the Catholic Missal, but that his Missa is A MUSICAL PORTRAIT OF GOD, in all his power, glory, and majesty.
From a technical standpoint, as you may have gathered by now, this recording is superb. Very well sung and played, the polyphonic lines are so clear that, if I had perfect pitch, I could write out the piece in full score just listening to this. As is to be expected, the sound quality is superb as well. I do have to give Gardiner credit: he makes a period-style performance sound like more than just an academic exercise, which is a feat very few have matched. On the other hand though, I don't think these advantages make this anything like a definitive recording of Beethoven's greatest work, even if such a thing existed. Are these advantages all that pronounced, or unique for that matter? Despite the fact that Gardiner uses much smaller forces than Klemperer, plays in a lighter manner, and has much better recording technology at his disposal, the improvement in clarity is marginal, and for me, the only reason one might prefer period recordings over non-period is that non-period techniques sometimes obscure the architecture of the piece. So ultimately, what reason is there for prefering this as the ultimate Missa Solemnis? For me there is none, but fans of Gardiner, the HIP movement, or showy music, might disagree with me.
on March 21, 2004
This piece and this recording are simply astounding. It's big, heavy, sweaty, pining Beethoven with the added bonus of complexity. Not that this is a bad thing, but this piece is paticularly hard to get one's musical mind around, which probably explains why it's not as popular as some of his archetypal symphonies (5th, 6th, 9th). Unlike some of Beethoven's more overtly thematic work, this one needs to sink in slowly and settle in a comfortable spot in the psyche until it unleashes it's full spectrum of power, beauty, and richness.
Part of the issue is that the piece was written over a number of years (1819-1823); enough years for Beethoven to develop in substantial ways. Consequently, the earlier movements have a different character than the later ones. But wait there's more: Beethoven also originally conceived this project (at least, according to a few sources) as a more traditional religious piece - he apparentely studied church music history with a vengeance, and this study manifests itself throughout the Mass. The goals apparently changed through the years, since the Kyrie and the Gloria have a more - relatively - traditional, classical feel to them, and the later movements are more moody and romantic (contrast the Gloria to the Sanctus and the differences stick out like escargot in a burger joint).
Partly for the reasons above, and partly due to the length of each individual section (the Kyrie is the shortest at just under 9 minutes, and the Credo is the longest at just over 17 minutes) this piece seems best ingested and approached one section at a time, rather than as one big lump sum total. This way the distinctiveness of each part is emphasized, and the listener is not lost in the progression (not always is there a clear indication that a movement has ended, and often I find myself - while listening casually - wondering if I'm in the Gloria or the Sanctus, or the Agnus Dei - the Credo stands out the most due to the very demonstrative marching and pounding theme that runs through it, and the singing of "Credo Credo" is the most sing-along phrase of the entire work - I sometimes catch myself belting out a "Credo Credo" when I least expect or want it to happen).
Another FAQ about the Missa Solemnis (or "Solemn Mass" or "Mass in D") is it's utilty: did Beethoven write it for religious or secular reasons (or: is it more like Brahm's Requiem or more like Bach's Passions)? It's one of those fascinating, corpus callosum splitting questions that provides much stimulus without much resolution. It doesn't appear that Beethoven was a practicing Christian in the traditional 18th century sense (i.e., he didn't go to mass regularly), but he has been quoted as saying that he wanted this Mass to incite religious feelings in the audience. But "religious" is only a somewhat kind of loaded and relative term. The other big spear of contention is the Credo itself: does Beethoven run through the major Catholic creeds in record time out of respect or disrespect? There are salient arguments on both sides of all these issues, and since Beethoven doesn't have too much to say about it these days, we're left with semingly nullifying arguments.
Religious or not, it's an amazing work that takes work to appreciate. This work pays off in droves and droves and piles of droves. You'll be drowning in droves. The Kyrie's harmonizations (how many voices resolve to a single voice that finishes the phrase) are astounding; the beginning of the Sanctus has to be up there with some of the most beautiful and ethereal of Beethoven's sounds; the Agnus Dei is one of those great musical finishes that is even more appreciable once the entire is grasped. These are just a paltry few of the highlights of the Mass.
This CD is arguably one of Sir John Eliot Gardiner's (don't forget the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque soloists) greatest achievements. Any Beethoven fan will jump in and happily drown in the sonorous splendor that is this disc. Excuse me while I dive...
on November 16, 2001
I find this version to be quite in accord to Beethoven's emphasis on PEACE. Sir Eliot Gardiner becomes so imbued of the appeal to peace implicit in this monumental composition that he leaves any wish of personal acclaim to focus on the essentials of Beethoven's deeply felt beseech for a European Peace. So badly needed at the time.
Much has been written about this monumental work of the maestro; much has been argued about its status as a true liturgy work for the church or its profane character; Even more has been speculated about Ludwig's actual religious feelings.
Facts have it that the Mass was written for use in church: it was composed for the installation of Beethoven's friend Archduke Rudolf as Cardinal-Archbishop of Olomouc. In early 1819 Beethoven wrote: "The day on which a High Mass composed by me is performed during the celebrations for Your Imperial Highness will be the finest day of my life, and God will inspire me so that my poor abilities may contribute to the glorification of this solemn day." Solemn, humble, words, no doubt, which witty Ludwig had long proved possessed both the timing and the rhetoric to proffer.
On the other hand, we know that Beethoven was particularly anxious to perform this work in Vienna, at least in part. As there was a strict prohibition against performing even parts of the Mass in a secular context, he gave these parts a German text. So parts of the Mass did make it to the concert hall, for example on the same day as the first performance of his Ninth Symphony.
Furthermore, critics have put in doubt the liturgical context of the Missa Solemnis on account of the speed with which Beethoven passes over the passage "Credo in unam sancta catholicam et apostolicam ecclesiam", generally seen as evidence of critical Catholicism or even his doubts about the church. ...
For instance, a key passage in the Mass is the recitative in the Agnus Dei. At first only dry beats on the timpani are heard. No music... just timpani thuds... What is it?... what is it?... where are we?... We are in the middle of nowhere, we are in the middle of terror, we are in the middle of war. Then the trumpets give a signal, smoothly, threateningly, the strings play a figure that is gooseflesh set to music. Then the alto soloist cries out fearfully: "Agnus Dei, miserere nobis" (Lamb of God, have mercy upon us). This cry is then taken up by the other soloists, resolving into complete calm, into well-ordered music: "Dona nobis pacem" (Give us peace). This is one of the most remarkable passages in the whole Mass, but I repeat, on the whole, the entire Mass is an appeal for peace.
This struggle for peace is also recognizable in the "Christe eleison". "Eleison" and "miserere nobis" mean the same: have mercy upon us, help us, don't leave us alone. Beethoven believed in his heart of hearts that sweetly, devotedly and devoutedly supplicating beseeching heartrending calls can wrench the best qualities of anybody or any power exhibiting a fearful authoritarian, violent stance, that is why he relentlessly strove to show his heart wide open, to make the powers of peace and brotherhood prevail over splitting, fighting and warring.
Gardiner makes the choir shout
Later on there is a similar passage, the fastest of the whole work, after the "Dona nobis pacem" (give us peace), a passage that resembles concert or symphonic music rather than a mass because of its strenuously battle-like overtones, at the end of which the chorus cries out in despair: "Agnus, agnus dei", very, very fast indeed. Has anybody ever heard an Agnus Dei shouted in church music? This cry is concerned with war and martial music. The cry finally blends into a prayer: Dona pacem (give us peace).
In bar 96 of the Agnus Dei, Beethoven scribbled: "prayer for peace within and without". What is the meaning of "peace within", and of "peace without". Can you harbour any doubt that peace without means no war? For peace within means no hostilities at home, whereas peace without stands for no hostilities in between countries, outside the bounds of the countries. It would be unimaginable to envisage the passage with trumpets and timpani in the Agnus Dei from bar 164 onwards deals with peace without. On the other hand, no peace within surely stands for the overflown tragedies that surpassed any degree of control and suffer under the aegis of chaos. A city in flames. its houses turned to debris, lost children and parents bodes ill for the future of such injured communities: Agnus Dei from bar 266 onwards represents inner turmoil which at least demands our devoutest prayers for inner peace, and surely call for action to relief the victims.
Beethoven used many different tempi in this work, slightly less than Mozart used in an opera. In virtually every major work of Mozart's we find a basic tempo which he constantly reverts to. Conversely, in Beethoven's Mass, almost every tempo occurs only once in each section.
Beethoven seems to have been at some pains to describe his tempi (don't let's forget that by the time he was 50, he tended more and more to leave less and less to the incidental performer's chance decision. A striking example is Hammerklavier's "adagio sostenuto e con molto sentimento", where even unsatisfied by his unambiguous statement at the beginning of the movement, when the sensuous, tender, highly vibrating famous passage comes round, he adds: for the first voice, played by the right hand "cantando con intensità", and for both hands: "con grande espressione e libertà" ...
It has often been said that if Beethoven had been aware of later technical improvements, such as the valve horn, he would have composed the whole Missa differently.
He could also have changed a good deal in the vocal writing, e.g., leaving out the very high notes in the chorus. He could have set some of them lower. He might have chosen different keys; then everything would have been performed effortlessly and smoothly. The audible effort, the strain, even those aspects of the score that go wrong are essential aspects of Beethoven's particular aesthetics.
on December 10, 2000
This absolutely beautiful work and recording of it defies my powers of description. I couldn't help playing the Gloria and the Credo over and over, as well as the entire work, today, because it is so deeply moving and because, as a newcomer to classical music who had never heard it before, I was trying to grasp it in some of its complexity and profundity. Today, at least, this is not something that I would play in my car, and I do listen to classical music when I drive my car. There have been quite a few words written here about this work. Seems one reviewer thinks that there is a "final fugue of credo, but first beginning on the words 'et exspecto resurrectionem'"...Not according to my linear note as well as what I read. According to my linear notes, "the final five words of the Credo 'Et vitam venturi saeculi, Amen' are extended into an immense fugue lasting for five minutes" (p.5).(I probably have this wrong but I thought that some time ago I found that "Et vitam venturi saeculi. Amen." was something over five minutes long, at least close to if not a few seconds more than seven, so...) I have read elswhere that, in fact, the end of the Credo, unlike the Gloria which ends with a fugue, ends with a pair of double fugues on the words 'et vitam venturi" and "Amen", and which are, in fact marked by Allegretto ma non troppo and Allegro con moto, respectively, and separated by a period in the printed text of the Missa Solemnis that accompanies the CD. As sung, these last are clearly distinct from "Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum." I also think that, as sung, they are distinct from each other enough so that while I really do not quite understand yet what a pair of double fugues is, anything like enough, I can both hear this (just) at this point and be incredibly affected by whatever it is. In the printed text accompanying the CD (in both the Latin and the English versions) the latter and the former do not even appear in the same paragraph. Although in the English translation there is a comma rather than a period after "And I await the resurrection of the dead," the rest of the sentence "and the life of the world to come" and Amen" are not on the same line and only "world to come" and "Amen" are followed by periods, it should still be absolutely clear to the listener/reader that these are separate and apart. To dwell on this any further here at this time would be to lose sight of the forest for the trees. I do seriously doubt that there could be a better interpretation and execution of this work, including and especially on modern instruments, although I haven't heard any others. BTW although as of the present time, I have had some difficulty giving some of Beethoven's symphonies the kind of appreciation they deserve, even I didn't think he was the composer of "bombastic symphonies" until this recording came along. Did you? I was, however, blown away by it.
on December 23, 1999
The GRAMOPHONE went over the board to praise this recording giving it the Record of the Year Award. Well, we all know the English love each other... Sir John's performance is rather martial, certainly well rehearsed and very well played, but it just lacks the ultimate in humanity to make it really moving. The Missa Solemnis has been lucky lately. Nikolaus Harnoncourt's recording in TELDEC is even more poignant and moving than Gardiner's, but played with modern instruments. James Levine surprised everyone with his extraordinary live Salzburg recording, this is not yet another glossy DG affair, but a serious, deeply felt reading. But best of all, another live recording, comes from Harmonia Mundi. Philippe Herreweghe is one of the most spiritual and interesting conductors of our Time, raised in Bach and in Renaissance music, he has an extraordinary feeling for choral works, and his loving, enormous performance, raises like a great Cathedral to the skies. This is by far the most beautiful and moving Missa Solemnis ever recorded.
on January 29, 1998
Ludwig van Beethoven became one of the world's most famous composers centuries before this time, and this fame has been due greatly because of his visionary works: the ubiquitous Ninth Symphony; the fierce Hammerklavier; and the Missa Solemnis.
It is rightly said that Beethoven cries out with more than a little personal emotion in many of his pieces, and the Missa Solemnis is probably the most famous of these. It is respected and revered, and has been recorded many times, but it is felt by some that the Missa has a certain aura that shuns away critics as the papal authority did with the Allegri Miserere. Still, the Missa Solemnis is probably a must for any vocal collection, and certainly (along with the Hammerklavier, "Moonlight" Sonata, and Symphonies) vital for any Beethoven collection.
The music for the Missa Solemnis is very radical in some parts. In particular, these places tend to appear in the Gloria and Credo. "Deo vero", "Et exspecto resurrectionem", and the immense fugue "et vitam venturi saecli, Amen" are but a few of the phrases that receive a drastic, possibly unforgettable interpretation. The voices are strung out in fortissimos and accompanied with flaring melodies.
There are quiet parts, as well. Benedictus has been called "blindingly serene", and even the Sanctus, which many composers tend to interpret as a showing of divine glory from start to finish, waits for its magnificent splendor several minutes into the music. Agnus Dei has been widely interpreted as a message of war-themes, and the timpani (which Berlioz used memorably) are some of the most controversial parts of the Missa Solemnis.
The fire of genius in Beethoven is evident everywhere in the Missa Solemnis except for the opening Kyrie. This has been called the one "normal" movement, with its carefully crafted (once you have listened to it, you will probably agree there is no description more fitting)voices and melody. It's beautiful, but somewhat restrained, especially when contrasted with the loose but controlled Gloria and the overwhelming Credo.
Missa Solemnis is a sweeping landscape that reflects Beethoven's phenomenonal grasp of music. Anyone can tell that it is unusual simply by hearing the opening (almost sliding) Gloria, or the final fugue of Credo, but first beginning on the words "et exspecto resurrectionem." The mass is even more unusual when compared to other composers': the difference between Missa Solemnis and Palestrina's Missa da Papae Marcelli and Schubert's Mass in B is very evident. Altogether, Missa Solemnis is an incredible work of both vocal and instrumental classical music. END
on December 24, 1998
I remember the words of the reviewer in the distinguished English periodical "Gramophone" who had just written a chapter on "Missa Solemnis" for a book on choral recordings - they were to the effect of "If I'd heard this version before the chapter went to press, I'd have written it completely differently". Amen to that. No other version comes close, and that's saying something, considering that some very distinguished folk (Karajan, Klemperer) have done it. Gardiner fills it with fire and passion which is often spine-chilling. Absolutely marvellous! My loans of the disc to friends don't last long, because they promptly rush out and buy their own!
on February 8, 2004
I agree with pepechenique that Gardiner's Missa is rather martial. Gardiner's Missa is kind of a glitzy affair because Gramophone praised it to the skies, and gave it 2 awards - Choral Award & Record of the year Award. It certainly has its merits - orchestral playing and a chorus that is astonishing in its virtuosity. But you know what? Like pepechenique, I found it kind of martial - it is superbly played no doubt but it is lacking in its ability to move. The playing is rather bland. Just listen to Klemperer's recording, which is fantastically intense. Or Solti's first recording - which though it puts the soloists unduly in the spotlight, has a 'feeling' which is missing here. However, the biggest surprise for me was Solti's SECOND recording with the Berlin Philharmonic. That recording topped it off. It is the best I have heard - for me, it certainly outshines this Missa and Solti's first recording.
Solti's 2nd recording has the distinction that the balance between chorus, soloists and orchestra is superb. For once, you can actually hear the orchestra in many parts of the Gloria, Credo and Sanctus with the chorus, whereas in other recordings, the orchestra inevitably gets swamped by the chorus when the chorus comes in at full force. And the Berlin Philharmonic is at its virtuosistic best!! They play magnificently - and when I say they are magnificent, they are MAGNIFICENT!! I agree with Gramophone's assessment that the soloists (Varady, Vermillon, Cole and Pape) give the impression of listening to each other and knowing their 'ebb and flow' in the piece - when they are important and when they should recede. THIS is really rare. PLUS all 4 soloists sing very beautifully - none of them are trying to 'stand out' but take their place dutifully (as they should) in the fabric of the whole piece. One of Solti's great attributes as a conductor was his constant development as a musician. In his second recording, he surpasses his first recording in the understanding of the architecture of the piece. In his recording, some parts of the Missa drag somewhat and doesn't quite gel together. Here, his understanding is total. The parts flow logically from one to the next, there's no unduly slow tempi, and for the first time in my history of listening to the Missa Solemnis, I actually UNDERSTAND the architecture of the piece as a whole. I used to listen to sections without seeing the big picture, now I see the big picture of the Missa in Solti's 2nd.
Gardiner, in my view, has missed some of the insights in Solti's second recording. As another example, in the Et Vitam Venturi fugue, Solti's transition from the slow to the fast and back to the slow is fantastic. When he ends the fast section (which is as fast as Gardiner's - maybe a few seconds slower), you still feel the forward momentum of the music. In Gardiner's case, the transition from slow to fast is splendid (but any conductor can do that). But when he ends the fast section, I feel that the music stalls somewhat.
I shall keep searching for the perfect Missa Solemnis (which doesn't exist).
on September 10, 1999
The Missa Solemnis sunk into my head slowly, which I've found to be the case with many other things that are near to my heart. That being said, it has been two years since I first heard Gardiner's Missa. And for all this time, it has been the CD that I play in my car from the time I insert the key to the time I remove it. Why? Because no matter how much you listen to this absolutely wonderful recording, there always seems to be more to love. You can thank Beethoven for this. It took years for him to complete the score, and he himself considered it his greatest masterpiece (I agree). You can also thank Gardiner, who has brought out texture in the work that I'm sure many will never know existed if they never hear this recording. Gardiner uses a small group of highly trained singers. The beauty of the work is seered into your memory with crisp precision.
I can not recommend this recording more highly and would enjoy hearing from anyone who is considering purchasing it.
on December 9, 1999
John Elliot Gardner and the Montervdi Choir have done a masterful work with Beethoven's Missa Solemnis. It is as accurate a performance as one can expect and it also constantly delivers a lively majesty in spirituality. I particularly enjoy the Agnus Dei performed by Alastair Miles. It is both solemn and gratifying at the same time. The horns pull off a wonderful job throughout the Credo movement. The Gloria proves to be nothing short of exciting and exhilararting. Overall, an incredible CD!