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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Ludwig Van Beethoven, "Missa Solemnis"

Ludwig Van Beethoven
"Missa Solemnis"
EMI (1966)

1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die

Martin Luther was generally correct when he attacked the Catholic Church for its selling of "indulgences" in order to raise funds for ornate cathedrals (plus exorbitant lifestyles for its bishops). One aspect of Renaissance christianity that neither I (nor Luther) will complain about is the Baroque masses composed by Beethoven, Bach and others.

Technically, neither of the aforementioned composers were "Renaissance;" that age had passed. However, the complex forms of sacred music advanced by true Renaissance-era composers such as Giovanni Pierluigi de Palestrina were still very much in fashion. If you thought Bach's Mass in B Minor (which we looked at several months ago) was a little more highfalutin than the typical fare at your local church, you ain't seen nothing yet. Beethoven's Missa Solemnis ("solemn mass") is intimidating, even compared to most non-sacred music.

First, understand that adding vocals to any piece of classical music is going to make the conductor's job a little tougher. Now, as opposed to just controlling the orchestra, he's watching over a group of singers as well. As with most vocal pieces, there's also a soloist. The only thing is that Beethoven decided on four soloists. Therefore conductor Otto Klemperer is simultaneously keeping watch over the New Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra, and also four soloists, who Beethoven has given vastly different parts. "Kyrie, misere nobis," indeed.

The frequently-dueling vocalists (soprano Elisabeth Söderström, contralto Marga Höffgen, tenor Waldemar Kmentt and bass Martti Talvela) are the obvious highlight. A few minutes into the opening Kyrie movement, and each is already at work. Beethoven was going deaf as he wrote this, but he still understood the capabilities of the human voice, and he opted to push them in this piece. His pushing was evident based on the occasional feedback from my MacBook speakers (which are, admittedly, a subpar brand for audio). The contrapuntal play between male and female voices throughout, particularly during the Agnus Dei movement, is another strong point.

It's unfortunate that the order in which a mass travels is more-or-less set in stone, because it limits where a composer can put the movements. The Gloria movements are usually the most exciting (and therefore would be better finales), and Beethoven's is no exception. Part one, "Gloria In Excelsis Deo," features everything that makes good, uptempo classical: vocals switching between harmonies and individual parts, and quick chord shifts that still trouble musicians today. Unfortunately, it appears early on, as is tradition.

The only instance of the instruments getting their fair share of the spotlight is during the Sanctus movement, when the vocalists take a break for three minutes and a single violin rises above the bedlam. Just smile and nod; the chorus and soloists will be back shortly.

INTERESTING FACT: The most famous portrait of Beethoven is that from German artist Joseph Karl Stieler. If you look closely, you'll see that the document that the composer is working on is the Missa Solemnis.


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