Prom 67: Beethoven, Mass in D major, op.123

It seems to
me inconceivable that I shall not look back in my dotage — assuming that
I shall have one — and remember Sir Colin Davis conducting the Missa
Solemnis at the Proms. Partly that must be a matter of my personal and, I
flatter myself, intellectual obsession with the work. Furtw‰ngler considered it
Beethoven’s greatest work; if pushed, so do I. But its greatness is not
that of Mozartian perfection: it lies in what, along with the late string
quartets, must surely constitute Beethoven’s greatest challenge, both for
himself and for us. It is both symphonic and, as Sir Colin points out in a
brief programme interview, a work that, ‘constructed word for word
… doesn’t lend itself to symphonic treatment’. The Mass both
affirms and doubts — does it even deny? — belief in God, as a
setting of the liturgy
. It stands both as an affirmation, monumental and
personal, in humanity, and a shattering demonstration of its nothingness in the
face of the Almighty. Beethoven’s setting is both utterly characteristic
in its strenuousness of purpose and strangely un-Beethovenian in other ways
(something I have promised myself I shall think more closely about after
several other projects: in the meantime, I shall refer the reader to Adorno).
It is also well-nigh unperformable; Furtw‰ngler simply stopped performing it.
Indeed, a Furtw‰ngler Missa Solemnis must be the ultimate fantasy recording;
alas, it seems that it will remain a fantasy. We have Klemperer, though, in
many ways a more meaningful dialectical antithesis to Furtw‰ngler than the
incomprehensibly venerated band-master Toscanini. And now we have Davis.

There was a special warmth to the applause Sir Colin received upon mounting
the podium, a warmth that in London I otherwise only associate with Bernard
Haitink. (The two conductors’ status as former Music Directors of the
Royal Opera House, and their accomplishments in that post, doubtless has
something to do with it, though Davis’s work with the London Symphony
Orchestra may rank higher still in audience and critical esteem.) But this is
not a conductor to be flattered, nor, crucially, to manufacture some easy,
false sense of ‘excitement’. Beethoven’s opening bars thus
resounded with spacious expectancy, as far removed from the idiocies of
‘period’ fashion as could be imagined. Indeed, there was a
tentative moment of ensemble that suggested the orchestra, which has recently
been performing Beethoven with Sir John Eliot Gardiner, might not quite be
attuned to Davis’s reading. The moment was over in the twinkling of an
eye, however, and it would, I think, be the sole criticism I could muster of a
magnificent performance from the LSO. The massed ranks of the London Symphony
Chorus and London Philharmonic Choir sounded quite staggering in heft,
unity, and clarity, once again proving a nonsense of the claim
sometimes heard that only small choirs can permit of contrapuntal or even
homophonic clarity. And the soloists — first of all, soprano, mezzo, and
tenor — sounded a voice for us, for frail humanity. One knew that this
was intended, and believed in: by Beethoven, by the conductor, and indeed by
the singers themselves. (Davis again: ‘You may not believe it immediately
afterwards, but it [the work] doesn’t survive unless everybody is
committed to it.’) The soloists’ echoing of the chorus upon
‘Christe’ intensified the sense of cosmological struggle —
and this in the ‘Kyrie’, only the first, and arguably most
‘normal’ movement. Kettledrums sounded implacable throughout, as if
intoning Holy Writ, or even trying to persuade us of it. Truth, then, shone
from every bar: there was a real sense that the Lord might, just might, grant
us that mercy besought in the liturgy.

Nothing, though, had prepared me for the opening of the ‘Gloria’
— which is as it should be. It came like an explosion, a thunderbolt
even, with the kind of electricity that Furtw‰ngler himself used to impart to
Beethoven, and few, very few, others have succeeded in eliciting since; it was
as if the heavenly throng itself were singing the Almighty’s praises. I
wondered whether Paul Groves was a little on the ‘operatic’ side
during the ‘Gratias’ section, or at least not sufficiently Germanic
in style, and one could have wished for greater resonance from Matthew Rose.
But any such minor doubts were soon overtaken by the titanic,
orchestrally-founded strength upon which we heard the choral ‘Domine
Deus, Rex cœlestis’. Hints of Mozartian Harmoniemusik upon
‘Domine Fili unigenite Jesu Christe’ were gratefully received, but
we were never in doubt that the Mozartian paradise had been lost for ever,
woodwind in the ‘Qui tollis’ section now recognisable from the
travails of the Ninth Symphony. Once again Beethovenian sincerity shone as a
light through the performance, the imploring ‘Qui sedes ad dexteram
Patris, miserere nobis’ signalling the composer kneeling. (And there is
clearly only one person, or force, before whom or which Beethoven would ever
kneel.) The ‘Quoniam’ captured to perfection that precarious
balance, or rather dialectic, between certainty and uncertainty or downright
despair, whilst the close of the movement recaptured the electricity of its
opening. If the soloists’ final Amen sent shivers down the spine, the
final choral shout of ‘Gloria’ went beyond anything I can even
attempt to express in words.

The opening calls of ‘Credo’ announced the battle royal that
lies at the heart of the work, the struggle of belief itself. ‘Credo quia
absurdum’ (a perennial misquotation of Tertullian)? Davis seemed here
heavily to lean towards Klemperer’s Nietzschean ‘immoralism’.
(One imagines Furtw‰ngler would have given a very different impression, but who
knows?) And crucially, there was a true sense of plainsong and Renaissance
polyphony sounding through history, if not eternity. When Christ, as the
liturgy has it, for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, he
certainly did in performance, and with what majesty: I thought momentarily of
the Advent hymn, ‘Lo, he comes with clouds descending’. The echoes
of early music — in the best rather than the modish sense — sounded
still more clearly upon hearing of the mystery of the Incarnation, as did the
wonder of the human soloists and Gareth Davies’s transcendent flute.
Groves emerged triumphant, or perhaps better as a true celebrant, intoning the
climactic ‘Et homo factus est’, the Christian miracle of God become
man. Likewise, one felt, almost as if in a Bach Passion, the unbearable agony
of Gethsemane and Golgotha upon the word of suffering, ‘Passus’,
Beethoven’s profoundest compassion expressed for Christ as man, evoking
Fidelio, and yet, extending far beyond even Fidelio. The
choral tenors’ shout of Resurrection, the sheer joy of Easter, reaffirmed
hope that might have been lost. And yet, strain, partly a consequence of
Beethoven’s notorious vocal writing, remained: does he, do we, believe?
The uphill sense of struggle, almost a literal expression of
‘ascendit’ and yet of course meaning so much more than that, was
valiantly, movingly expressed in the ‘Allegro molto’ section, until
we returned to ‘Credo’, in this case, belief in the Holy Ghost.
There was a sense of arrival, but also, strongly, that this was but the first
foothill in our ascent. I was particularly impressed at the virtually flawless
delivery of the sopranos’ cruel soft, high lines upon the words ‘Et
vitam venturi saeculi’. (Listen to Karajan’s Wiener Singverein
should you wish to hear how poorly even a professional chorus can shape up to
Beethoven’s demands.) By now, there was a sense of lid being kept on,
prior to explosion. And so it came to pass, the movement ending with Klemperian

Beethoven marked the Sanctus ‘Mit Andacht’ (‘with
devotion’), which is just what we heard, trombones sounding their aequale
across the Habsburg centuries. Davis’s mastery of transition was heard to
great effect in the difficult section prefacing the calls of ‘Pleni sunt
coeli’. The choruses once again sounded as if an angelic host:
awe-inspiring, truly thrilling. And then, that extraordinary paradox: the
‘Praeludium’, in which the orchestra sounds almost more like an
organ than an organ does (the organ part itself elsewhere being taken
excellently by Catherine Edwards). Beethoven’s power of suggestion
reminded me here of an instance in the E major piano sonata, op.14 no.1, in
which he somehow manages to suggest portamento, writing a passage that
would never work as the real thing on the violin. What spiritual inwardness,
though, was expressed here: a mystery awaiting revelation, for which the
LSO’s lower strings unerringly prepared us, ‘Benedictus qui venit
in nomine Domini’. Whilst the vocal contribution to the
‘Benedictus’ section was extraordinarily fine, Sarah
Connolly’s richness of tone an especial marvel here, and Helena Juntunen,
a late replacement for Carmen Giannattasio, also excellent, there was, alas,
something of a disappointment to be endured from the all-too-secular sounding
violin solo from Gordan Nikolitch. (It sounded and looked like a concerto: I
cannot believe that it was a wise decision to have him stand.) That was a pity,
but we were soon reconciled in true Handelian grandeur — or what used to
be Handelian grandeur before the composer’s capture by
‘authenticity’ — of the ‘Hosanna’.

Finally, the ‘Agnus Dei’. Here, Rose impressed, dolorous and at
times desperate, the other soloists responding in kind. The horrors of war
— human reality as opposed to the human ideal? — terrified without
lapsing into the grotesque, as so often they do; I have rarely heard them so
integrated into the musical argument, save once again for readings by
Klemperer. And there was again a properly Handelian sturdiness to the
‘Dona nobis pacem’. Whether or no there be an actual quotation from
Messiah, and it is too readily forgotten just how greatly Beethoven
revered Handel, it certainly sounded as if the resemblance to ‘And he
shall reign’ was intentional. The performance was crowned, though it was
too late, for we had been taken to the abyss. ‘Pacem’? Perhaps. In
fact, probably not, for this was the most desolate conclusion to the work I
have ever heard: desolate, and yet retaining a nobility which might remain our
sole hope of peace.

Mark Berry

Click here for access to audio and video recordings of this performance.

image_description=Ludwig van Beethoven byJoseph Karl Stieler (1781-1858) [Source: Wikipedia]
product_title=Prom 67: Beethoven, Mass in D major, op.123
product_by=Helena Juntunen (soprano); Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano); Paul Groves (tenor); Matthew Rose (bass); London Philharmonic Choir (chorus-master: Neville Creed); London Symphony Chorus (chorus-master: Joseph Cullen); London Symphony Orchestra; Sir Colin Davis (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, Sunday, 4 September 2011.
product_id=Above: Ludwig van Beethoven byJoseph Karl Stieler (1781-1858) [Source: Wikipedia]