Though Beethoven himself never heard a complete performance of this craggy mass, he considered it his greatest work. In it, he distilled techniques from an exhaustive three-year study of Western religious music since Palestrina, updating them into a style that presages his late symphonic and chamber works. The result is a sprawling work, constructed out of a dense accumulation of disparate fragments in an almost post-modern manner. Joyous exclamations sit cheek by jowl with tender laments, each painted in contrasting colors, timbres and styles.
Given, in addition, the sheer technical challenge and occasional awkwardness of the solo and choral writing, it is hardly surprising that many performers and listeners find the work unapproachable, even baffling. Yet the challenge has long attracted great conductors: most famously, Toscanini and von Karajan, both of whom tended to treat the work like a grand symphony. In recent years, early music experts Gardiner and Harnoncourt have made the case for a contemplative and less overtly romantic interpretation.
From the first note, one hears Petrenko’s debt to the latter tradition. He insists on extreme transparency, tightly controlled balances, restrained dynamics, rhythmic energy and swift tempos – a gentle, other-worldly approach that projects clearly from the stage of the acoustically near-perfect Nationaltheater. At the same time, however, the warmth and polish of modern orchestral instruments accentuates the romantic side, even if at times one might wish for more expressiveness in the phrasing and exuberance in the fugal climaxes. The unique tension in the Angus Dei, for example, in which forlorn pleas for peace echo above an oddly warlike undercurrent, hardly registers. Still, Petrenko’s compromise is surely preferable to the confused bombast or harsh precision this work often elicits.
The orchestra responded brilliantly, following every command – even at some remarkably swift tempos. As a full-time pit band, they naturally command operatic techniques, such as an aura of rapt transparency by attacking chords at the marked dynamic and then having all but the solo parts fall away. The Staatsoper chorus, too, displayed rare subtlety and blend, even if Petrenko’s restraint and Beethoven’s challengingly high vocal lines sometimes pushed the sopranos to the brink.
The difficulty of Beethoven’s choral writing is exceeded by what he gave the four vocal soloists. Petrenko appears to have selected these singers, which includes notable interpreters of Baroque and modernist works, to complement his understated interpretation. Outstanding was the contribution of Marlis Petersen, who approaches the harrowing soprano part with no apparent strain, perfect intonation and – almost uniquely, in my experience – a warm yet focused tone right up to the top of the voice. Young mezzo Olga von der Damerau responded with equal passion and warmth, if slightly less solid technique. Tenor Benjamin Bruns negotiated the punishingly tessitura clearly and sweetly, despite a tendency (at least early on) to approach notes from below. In any other company, young Bass Tareq Nazmi might have seemed underpowered – one did wish for more passion in the Agnus Dei – yet nonetheless projected with precision and feeling.
It added up to as fine a performance of this great work as one is likely to hear these days. The sold-out crowd of Sunday morning spectators remained utterly silent during the work and responded enthusiastically afterwards.
Cast and production information:
Marlis Petersen, soprano; Olga von der Damerau, mezzo-soprano; Benjamin Bruns, tenor; Tariq Nazmi, bass. Kirill Petrenko, conductor. Chorus of the Bayerische Staatsoper. Bayerische Staatsoper. Nationaltheater, Munich. 17 February 2019.
image_description=Kirill Petrenko [Photo by Monika Rittershaus courtesy of Berliner Philharmoniker]
product_title=Petrenko Directs Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis
product_by=A review by Andrew Moravcsik
product_id=Above: Kirill Petrenko [Photo by Monika Rittershaus courtesy of Berliner Philharmoniker]