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Ludwig van Beethoven: Missa Solemnis, Op. 123
Lucy Crowe (soprano), Jennifer Johnson (mezzo-soprano), James Gilchrist (tenor), Matthew Rose (bass), Monteverdi Choir, Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, Peter Hanson (leader), John Eliot Gardiner (conductor)
Recorded at the Barbican Hall, London (October 17, 2012) – 70'06
Soli Deo Gloria 718 – Booklet essays and translations in English, German, and French

Which is Beethoven's most audacious and boisterous work? No, it's not his Ninth Symphony, not after hearing this new recording of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis anyway. The five movement choral work, completed shortly before his famed Ninth, is virtually the same length, but the virtuosic demands and variety of styles are a combustable amalgam that can pack even more of a punch than the master’s beloved final symphony. The Mass is delivered here exquisitely in this recording from John Eliot Gardiner and his Monteverdi Choir and Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique.

It sure doesn't appear that Gardiner is following the path of some of his conducting predecessors and taking a more contemplative approach in his second recordings of master works. In fact, with the exception of the "Credo," every movement in this recording clocks in under his previous, outstanding recording with the English Baroque Soloists (itself not by any means slow). Yet there is plenty of room for awe and expansive textures (as in the exquisite end of the "Sanctus" melding into the "Agnus Dei").

But the contrasts are where this recording really takes off. The more brash, the better, it seems for Gardiner. The conductor creates downright shocking transitions throughout the piece, particularly as it surges towards the climax at "miserere nobis" in the final movement. The brass and percussion are explosive and harsh, creating a plebeian exuberance that is infectious. None of this would matter, however, if the forces weren't of the highest quality and there is no doubt as to the level of the ORR's skill set. Ensemble is compact, articulation exact, and the balances are well captured. Leader Peter Hanson is to be singled out for a divine violin solo in the "Sanctus."

The Monteverdi Choir is expressive, singing with a lean sound that never lacks in power. The colors this choir produce are numerous and the range they bring to a performance of sacred music is impressive. Their opening tone in "Kyrie" contrasted with their sound at the "Christe" in the first movement alone is gripping. Gardiner and the musicians allow the colors of the music to inform tone placement, articulation, and vowels, all resulting in a highly dynamic performance. It takes the sacred text out of the realm of church into the realm of the dramatic. Take, for instance, the "quoniam tu solos sanctus," in the "Gloria." Delivered full-throated by the tenors (who shine often in this recording), it is the type of music-making that elevates an already exquisite work to another dimension.

The four soloists are uniformly excellent with soprano Lucy Crowe being exceptional. Her control is outstanding, able to move from lyric to fiery in an instant. The four singers have exceptional musical instincts and sing with robust instruments. Their "Amen" at the end of the "Gloria" is exciting. The ensuing coda to the movement is impossibly fast and exhilarating.

The recorded sound is on the dry side but still manages to satisfactorily deliver the details of the single live performance. The vocal forces seem to come across best while the orchestra tends to lack some richness. Still, this performance is absolutely captivating: drama, power, virtuosity. No Beethoven fan should be without it.

Matthew Richard Martinez




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