Gielen’s Excellent “Missa Solemnis”

cover ORF-C999201

BEETHOVEN: Missa Solemnis / Alison Hargan, sop; Marjana Lipovšek, alto; Thomas Moser, ten; Matthias Hölle, bs; Wiener Singverein; ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orch.; Michael Gielen, cond / Orfeo C999201 (live: 1985)

Is Michael Gielen’s reputation growing bigger since his retirement and death? I can’t say, because I don’t get much feedback from my European readers on this, but I liked him since he came to direct the Cincinnati Symphony in the early 1980s and have admired most of his releases since, particularly the massive series of boxed sets coming out on the SWR Music label.

This live 1985 performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis is a fair representation of the way he conducted the music. In addition to this performance, I also have one on DVD (privately made for me by a friend of Gielen’s) with soprano Phyllis Bryn-Julson and the Cincinnati Symphony, but although it’s wonderful to see him conducting again I have to admit that the sound quality isn’t optimal. As a result, my favorite stereo or digital recording has been the June 1973 live performance conducted by William Steinberg with Heather Harper, Julia Hamari, Sven Olof Eliasson and Peter Meven as soloists, on ICA Classics 5054.

But this new release from Orfeo is just as good if not better. The only soloist with whom I was not previously familiar was soprano Alison Hargan, but although she does not have quite as starry a voice as Harper on the Steinberg recording, she turns out to be superb in her own way, and tenor Thomas Moser is a better singer than Eliasson on the ICA release.

Gielen is quoted as saying that the Missa Solemnis is, and was, rarely programmed because “The world of shareholder values doesn’t care for Christ,” but the real reason runs much deeper than that. After all, Bach’s Mass in b minor gets plenty of exposure in concert halls. The real reasons why the Missa Solemnis doesn’t get programmed very much is because it is, in many places, a much more sentimental work than most late Beethoven (this is, after all, Op. 123), and it fills an entire evening’s program. For the same reason, Bach’s St, Matthew Passion is rarely programmed in live performance.

As for the religious content of the work, that too goes against the grain of the Deist Beethoven who, like Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi, wrote religious works (the former’s Love-Feast of the Apostles and the latter’s Requiem Mass) without being firm Christian believers. Beethoven wrote this work as a Deist “mass,” expressing his deepest and most sincere feelings for the God who created the Universe and everything in it, something he did indeed believe in. The “Gloria” and “Credo” are just as heaven-storming, if not more so, than the first movement of his Ninth Symphony, except that a full chorus and four soloists are also involved in the fray. Christians can never seem to understand or accept that Deists do indeed believe in a God because, to them, if you don’t also buy into Christ and the Bible you’re an atheist or a heretic, but Thomas Paine made this very clear indeed in The Age of Reason, a book that should be required reading in every public school in America.

Interestingly, Gielen’s performance of the “Kyrie” is nearly two minutes longer than Steinberg’s, clocking in at 9:55 to Steinberg’s 8:00, yet the complete performance is actually a few seconds shorter. That is because Gielen sped up the “Gloria,” “Credo” and “Agnus Dei,” conducting each of these three movements at a quicker pace than Steinberg. Of course, the first two of these can withstand a faster pace without too much damage, and thus I can easily recommend this version. But another reason why a lot of people don’t like the Missa is that these two movements are VERY noisy, being filled not only with the chorus at full volume most of the time but also with somewhat hyperactive tympani, who whack and thump their way through these movements like the cannons in the 1812 Overture. By contrast, the last two movements—“Sanctus and Benedictus” and the “Agnus Dei”—are relatively quiet, although with some choral-tympani outbursts.

Making an A-B comparison between this recording and Steinberg’s, I find myself unable to decide which of the two is better. (I might also throw in Kenneth Schermerhorn’s excellent performance with the Nashville Symphony and four lesser-known soloists, included by Naxos in their mostly very good Beethoven Complete Edition.) None are quite as good as Arturo Toscanini’s three great recorded performances, with the New York Philharmonic in 1935 and with the NBC Symphony in 1940 and 1953 (the live performance, not the studio recording), of which the best of the best is that 1940 broadcast with the stellar quartet of Zinka Milanov, Bruna Castagna, Jussi Björling and Alexander Kipnis, but here’s the thing. If you were to combine the slower first movement of the Gielen performance with the slower performances of the remaining four movements by Steinberg, you’d have an ideal recording, but the sonics are quite different. The Steinberg performance, recorded at a bit of a distance, gives the whole performance an effect as if the soft passages were floating through the ether, whereas the Gielen performance was recorded with very close miking. And that is the one reason why, despite all the wonderful things that Gielen does here, I must come down in favor of Steinberg.

But of course you are free to feel differently. If the Steinberg recording did not exist, this would clearly go to the top of stereo and/or digital recordings of the Missa. As it is, I personally give it an A with just a shade of a minus while Steinberg gets an A with just a shade of a plus. Sometimes assessing a recording does indeed come down to splitting hairs. If you are a Gielen fan, however, this is clearly superior to both of his mid-‘80s performances with Bryn-Julson as soprano and thus a recording you’ll want to own. Also, if you don’t already have the Steinberg recording or are finding it hard to locate, I certainly don’t hesitate to recommend this. But if you really love the Missa, you owe it to yourself to get a copy of Toscanini’s 1940 performance. The vocal quartet on that one blends so perfectly that you’d think they had rehearsed together for months instead of just a few weeks.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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