Jansons Conducts Beethoven

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BEETHOVEN: Mass in C.* Leonore Overture No. 3+ / Genia Kühmeier, sop; Gerhild Romberger, alto; Maximilian Schmitt, ten; Luca Pisaroni, bs-bar; Bavarian Radio Chorus & Symphony Orch.; Mariss Jansons, cond / BR Klassik 900170 (live: *Gasteig, January 11-12, 2018; +Munich, January 29-30, 2004)

Here is a performance of Beethoven’s “other” mass, the one less often chosen for presentation. The Mass in C was written in 1806 and published in 1807, and Beethoven considered it a great advance on the writing of masses in his time. Now, 1806 was still what you would call “early middle period Beethoven,” after the Fifth Symphony but before the Sixth Symphony or the first of his “middle quartets,” so we have a good idea of the melodic-harmonic language he was using at that time.

At first blush, this would seem to be just yet another Romantic-era Mass, but the more you listen to it the more little details jump out at you. For instance, even in the “Kyrie,” Beethoven uses the chorus and solo voices performing individual, interweaving lines, almost like a string quartet, and although the harmony is clearly not as advanced as the late quartets or piano sonatas, it is still Beethoven-like in its restlessness. Both the harmony and rhythm keep shifting and changing as the music progresses, creating a fairly complex interplay that is quite different indeed from the later Missa Solemnis.

Jansons conducts this work with real energy and commitment, which keeps the pulse and the complex interplay of voices moving forward. Sadly, soprano Genia Kühmeier is clearly the only outstanding voice in the vocal quartet. Although Luca Pisaroni has a pleasant voice, he is really a baritone and thus cannot give as much weight to the lower end of the four-voice passages as he should. Both Gerhild Romberger and Maximilian Schmitt have pronounced flutters in their voices, although Schmit is sometimes locked into focus while Romberger is not.

The choral fugue that emerges at about the seven-minute mark in the “Gloria” is very good indeed, using rising cadences in the “Amen” section. The “Credo” opens with serrated triplet figures played by the celli but quickly moves into a somewhat martial tempo with strong tympani underscoring. There is quite bit of variety in this movement, in fact, with “driving” figures much as you heard in Fidelio and would later hear in the first movement of the Eighth Symphony.

Perhaps one of the reasons why this Mass is more dramatic and less “reverent” than usual stems from the fact that he, like Thomas Paine, was a Deist and not a Christian. Beethoven believed in the God of nature, the force that created the universe and everything on our planet, and this was the God he paid homage to. As a result, his music has the sweep of waves and the rumble of thunder in it, but does not evoke some old guy in the sky who, like Santa Claus, knows when you’ve been naughty or nice. It’s a different way of looking at God that I wish most people in the world would get back to. When the “Credo” suddenly increases in tempo at around 6:40, you get the feeling that Beethoven is driving the music towards some unattainable goal, in a sense “storming the heavens” as he did in the recently-completed Fifth Symphony. I was particularly pleased by the singing of the Bavarian Radio Chorus, which gives us an exceptional ensemble blend, along with incisive rhythmic accents, yet still sounds like a group of human beings and not like a MIDI, as most “historically-informed” choirs do.

As the Mass progresses, one notes that although the music is clearly tonal, Beethoven used a wide variety of tempi and occasionally (as at the one-minute mark in the “Sanctus”) unusual key changes. This movement, in particular, is not the least bit predictable or formulaic, but jumps around much like certain modern composers like to do (in a non-tonal way, of course), and its brevity (only 2:51) is as much a surprise as anything else. In the “Benedictus” Beethoven writes one of his most beautiful and appealing melodies, much like the second movement of the “Pathétique” piano sonata. By this time, too, contralto Romberger’s voice has finally warmed up and her pronounced flutter is gone (not so, sadly, in the case of Schmitt).

Perhaps the one disappointment, for me, was the rather chipper “Agnus Dei,” with which Beethoven concluders this Mass. Although the music is still quite good, it sounds a little too much to me like scraps from the previous movements stitched together. Well, hey, not even a Beethoven could be wholly original in every bar of every piece!

Since the Mass is rather short, the CD concludes with a performance of the Leonore Overture No. 3, recorded 14 years earlier. Here, Jansons gives us a very Toscanini-like performance, with a dramatic, forward thrust and emphasizing the astringent texture of the wind passages.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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