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Beethoven's Missa Solemnis According to Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique


By John Sidgwick

LONDON, 22 October 2002 - The London Barbican Hall's Great Performers 2002-2003 series got off to a thunderous start with Beethoven's monumental Missa Solemnis. Each time I listen to this work, I try to put on my 1819 ears, that being the year of composition of Missa Solemnis. Depending on the style of performance, I can be moved, enthused or comforted in varying degrees. But I am always left with a feeling of astonishment, and I do not need my ancient ears for this, since the sheer force and complexity of the work continue to exercise their hold over audiences as strongly as ever. Nevertheless, I can only think that Beethoven's contemporaries must have been knocked flat by it, making their way back to their homes after a performance, shaking their heads in bemused wonderment or a complete lack of understanding.

In a radio interview in between rehearsals for this performance by the Monteverdi Choir and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, Sir John Eliot Gardiner was asked how he approached the work. Without hesitation he replied, "With devotion", this being Beethoven's inscription over the Kyrie (mit Andacht). And as can be expected, Gardiner was absolutely true to his word, if devotion in this case means a scrupulous observation of the composer's intentions. Orchestra, choir and soloists excelled throughout in conveying the musical and spiritual message of the work with the utmost clarity.

One of the characteristic features of the Monteverdi Choir since it was founded by Gardiner in 1964 when he was still an undergraduate at Cambridge University has always been the sharp and intense focus of sound that he manages to coax out of his singers. This has meant that with relatively small forces—a mere thirty-six singers on this occasion—he has constantly been able to achieve a truly massive tonal volume when necessary, worthy of far bigger ensembles. Such sound, on the other hand is matched by the haunting quality of the choir's pianissimos.

To go alongside his cherished choir, Gardiner had assembled an excellent quartet of soloists, Luba Orgonasova (soprano), Nathalie Stutzmann (contralto), Christoph Prégardien (tenor) and Alastair Miles (bass); each contributed in their own individual ways and in striking fashion to the impact of the performance, Orgonasova with her serene and soaring phrases, Stutzmann with the beauty and intensity of sound of the true contralto, Prégardien with his passionate outbursts and Miles with the comforting warmth of his bass singing.

The real strength of this performance, however, lay in the contribution of the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, the period instrument group that Gardiner has carefully nurtured since he founded it in 1990. Gardiner has never gone in for the use of period instruments simply in response to a fad; nor has he ever claimed that any of his period instrument ensembles are reproducing with complete accuracy the sounds that would have been made by musicians of the time. His aim has always been to get to the heart of the composer's intentions—and such intentions must surely have borne in large measure the influence of the instrumental environment of the epoch. To this, Gardiner has added the fruits of on-going research both by himself and by the members of his orchestra into period performance practice.

Such an approach came into complete fruition at the recent performance. The orchestra fizzed with exciting sound; occasionally, the strings almost hissed their intricate chamber music-like counterpoint and the trumpets and horns dug into you in a manner which made one wonder if this was a Mass or a pagan festival. There was some exquisite flute and piccolo playing (Marten Root and Neil McLaren) and the orchestra's leader, Peter Hanson, provided a subtle and moving rendition of the extended violin solo passage in the Benedictus.

One can suppose that the minor blemishes in the Barbican performance such as a lack of precision in some of the choir entrances, will be ironed out by Gardiner's team in future performances. These, however, were as chaff in the wind compared with the excellence of the London performance overall.

John Sidgwick writes on music in Britain and France for Culturekiosque.com.

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