Beethoven: Mass in C major, Op 86; Leonore Overture No 3, Op 72b

Reviewed on Mon 11 Feb, 2019

Mariss Jansons is aware of the emotions running through the Mass but is perhaps more attuned to its lyricism than its drama.

What did Beethoven mean by the tempo marking ‘Andante con moto assai vivace quasi Allegretto ma non troppo’ at the head of the Kyrie? Mariss Jansons side-steps its complexity and settles for a flowing Andante, his forces so finely balanced that no one group overwhelms another. Unusually, too, there are no parts for flutes, trumpets or timpani in this movement. If Beethoven was expecting to create an atmosphere of pastoral equanimity with conjunct thirds in the woodwind and only a few outbursts in the orchestration to disturb the calm, then Jansons grants him his wish. But come the Gloria (the omitted instruments appear from here onwards) this paean to God has an understated feel, retained in the Credo as well – with perhaps a first hint as to why Prince Nicholas Esterhazy II, who commissioned the Mass for his wife Princess Marie Hermenegild’s name day, disliked the work so much that he vituperatively condemned the composer to a friend. Haydn, who had written six Masses for the Princess before resigning his post, opened each Credo as a strong, confident affirmation of belief. He had set a precedent. Beethoven didn’t follow suit; and his piano-pianissimo marking in the first seven bars voices doubt. Not exactly what was expected here; or probably elsewhere in a Mass that doesn’t storm the heavens. Jansons is aware of the emotions running through the work but is perhaps more attuned to its lyricism than its drama. His conducting of the Agnus Dei from a Poco Andante beginning in C minor to an Allegro ma non troppo in C major at the words Dona nobis pacem, the transition bridged by a four-bar clarinet solo, speaks a lot for his artistry. And it is not one that baulks at histrionics either, as a powerfully theatrical Leonora 3 Overture testifies.
–Nalen Anthoni