Review: The Swedish Chamber Orchestra Presents A Magnificent ‘Missa Solemnis’ That Transcends At Geffen Hall
By Christopher Johnson, Contributing Writer, November 14, 2017
Nearly two centuries after its completion, people still pretty much fall into two camps about Beethoven’s Missa solemnis: they think it’s either one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, or the chaotic leavings of a man who was not just going deaf but losing it across the board. The Swedish Chamber Orchestra has its own ideas.
I like to have it both ways: to me, it’s one of the greatest works of art, of any kind, that humanity has ever been blessed with, but I can’t even approach it, let alone talk about it, without sounding like a crazy-man, especially when it’s performed as magnificently as it was this past Sunday afternoon at Geffen Hall. I can only tell you about the experience by sharing the disordered shards of my own memory, because I stopped taking notes three minutes into the piece, when I began to tremble and had to get out my handkerchief, which never left my hand until I had to put it away in order to join the prolonged standing ovation at the end.
Everything about the Missa is infamously difficult, both technically and formally: ranges and tempi are extreme, and for much of the piece every line of text occupies a startlingly different sound-world, requiring miracles of control and flexibility to keep it from flying apart.
Sunday’s performance transcended all of that. A wonderful solo quartet and one of the world’s greatest choruses were consistently musical and articulate, no matter how cruelly high or brutally low Beethoven took them, and the chorus gave an object-lesson in the power of diction to clarify and enliven even the gnarliest counterpoint. The conductor managed every whiplash transition as if it were not only the most natural thing in the world but the only thing possible. Control yielded when emotion overwhelmed, but beauty of expression never wavered, and never flinched from the truth: pain hurt, marvels stunned, and humanity stood before the infinite in awe and wonder, with pity and fear. You saw what the crazy-man was getting at: Jesus’s line about “receiving the Kingdom of God like a little child” kept coming to mind, but you never forgot that you were in the hands of a great tragedian, who was never more completely alive than here.
You don’t have time to hear about more than a few of the many high-points: the soloists’ exquisite account of “qui tollis” in the Gloria, and the whole ensemble’s thrilling stretto towards the end of that movement; the harrowing narrative at the heart of the Creed, with “Pontio Pilato” spat out one syllable at a time, and each subject in the massive climactic fugue characterized and individuated by articulation; the awesome sense of space and mystery in the orchestral prelude to the Sanctus, and the chorus’s seraphically floated high-notes towards the end; the magical transition from low woodwinds and strings at the beginning of the Agnus Dei, with those crawling bass-lines that must have taught Berlioz a thing or two, to the tender, quivering, never-quite-answered and never-more-necessary final prayer “Dona nobis pacem”—“Give us peace.”
The solo quartet was everything that could be desired, with outstanding work by Malin Christensen and Michael Weinius. Her high C in the Benedictus was glorious—joyfully approached, and gently arrived at. His “Et homo factus est” rang with astonishment and bashful pride; he sounded like a new father, which was just right.
The orchestra was wonderful in every way, and concertmistress Sara Trobäck Hesselink did a beautiful job with the long violin solo in the Benedictus.
The choir is the stuff of legend, and they met every expectation. It seems almost unbelievable that they number only forty-one singers. Their soft singing was breathtaking, their coloratura brilliant, and in full cry they were overwhelming. You might have wanted more in the exposed final shout of the Gloria, but that was a small price to pay for everything else, which was as nearly perfect as makes no difference.
Thomas Dausgaard led the whole thing with blazing intent and specificity, and this is vital, because Beethoven was never more theatrical than in this piece, which prefigures many of the most distinctive moments not only in Berlioz, but in Rossini, Wagner, Verdi, and Mahler as well. Like the Missa itself, Dausgaard’s interpretation is not for everyone—too eruptive for the tidy-minded and too explicit for routine devotional use—but I know of only two other conductors who realized the piece more fully and persuasively: Toscanini caught more of its terror in a 1935 performance with the New York Philharmonic, and more of its fantasy and quicksilver invention in his 1940 live recording with the NBC Symphony, while his onetime chorus-master Robert Shaw gave it almost crushing force at Carnegie Hall in 1976 (a recording with different soloists only hints at that performance’s power, but these workshop sessions really suggest what Shaw could do).
Maybe I’m still punch-drunk—revelation is hard—but I think Sunday’s performance stands in those exalted ranks. With any luck, they’ll make a recording to add to their fascinating survey of Beethoven’s orchestral music. In the meantime, let’s hope they all come back soon.
Swedish Chamber Orchestra and Swedish Radio Choir in concert presented through Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival and Great Performers Series on November 12, 2017 at David Geffen Hall. Thomas Dausgaard, conductor; Peter Dijkstra, choral director; Malin Christensson, soprano; Kristina Hammarström, mezzo-soprano; Michael Weinius, tenor; Josef Wagner, bass.
BEETHOVEN: Mass in D major, Op. 123 (“Missa solemnis”)
Cover: Conductor Thomas Dausgaard; photo by Thomas Grondahl.