Beethoven: Missa solemnis, Op 123

Reviewed on Wed 06 Jul, 2016

The contrasts in this work are wide and wild, reflecting Beethoven’s interior struggles. Nikolaus Harnoncourt meets them as unflinchingly as he does the astral catch-your-breath spirituality of the Sanctus and Benedictus.

Ever wondered why Beethoven began his Missa solemnis on a weak beat? Is it connected to what J W N Sullivan said in 1927: that the composer “came to possess a mystical apprehension of life”? Whatever, profound sacred awe grapples with ambiguity in belief. Uncertainty, hesitation, questioning, emerge in a kaleidoscope of emotions ending in an Agnus Dei that evokes neither tranquillity nor triumph, only depictions of peace and war standing side by side. No closure. Recordings are roughly divided, from those who prefer to read certitudes – Otto Klemperer (Warner), John Eliot Gardiner (SDG) – to those who read the doubts – Arturo Toscanini (BBC Legends), Carlo Maria Giulini (Warner). The opening Kyrie ('Lord, have mercy') offers inklings. It’s a plea, yet Klemperer and Gardiner demand; Toscanini asks; Giulini implores, Mit Andacht (with devotion) as instructed. Nikolaus Harnoncourt is no less eloquent but adds his personal expressive reach to the divine; and he also detects hints of anger later on notably in the Credo, at Christ’s crucifixion and burial. The contrasts in this work are wide and wild, reflecting Beethoven’s interior struggles. Harnoncourt meets them as unflinchingly as he does the astral catch-your-breath spirituality of the Sanctus and Benedictus, probing deeper realms since his first version in 1992. He never languished. And he could not have left us on a finer note.
–Nalen Anthoni