Barbican, 17 October 2012
The beginning of the 1991performance conducted by James Levine.
Beethoven’s music is so dramatic, seems so communicative, that I’m often frustrated he didn’t ‘pin down’ his feelings with words. Given his unhappy experience of opera, we are left with just this intense setting of the mass.
It is not for every day, and as conductor John Eliot Gardiner pointed out before this performance, it is inconceivable it would be used in a church for an actual mass.
It is extremely demanding, and easier to love in the abstract than in performance, where the composer's grappling with the core concepts of Christianity becomes the listener's struggle to appreciate this lumpy, hysterical, urgent, sometimes sublime work.
Unlike any of his other pieces, Beethoven engages completely with the setting of words, and the phrases of the mass dictate the musical accompaniment, or atmosphere. But as the music also thrusts forward with characteristic dynamism, the listener (at least this listener) can feel buffetted and exhausted by the regular switches in mood.
The long credo section is the extreme example of this – every word seems to warrant its own mood, and the transitions between these moods are a fiendish challenge for conductor and audience. The melting loveliness of the phrase ‘et incarnatus est’ contrasts so strongly with the music before it that I was jolted into tears. That is surely exactly what the composer intended, and he must have intended many more such violent reactions, all very difficult to achieve in performance.
With the Monteverdi Choir, we could be sure that the purely choral side would at least sometimes be magnificent, as in the ‘et incarnates est’. But the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique was a more mixed blessing – brass seemed to be in another room, and startlingly ugly; when the organ started playing I thought someone’s mobile phone had started beeping. On the other hand, I feel Beethoven benefits from some cragginess, some ugliness, some oddness.
Unfortunately John Eliot Gardiner’s overall conception is a small one, meaning both in terms of the sound and in relationship between the various sections of the mass. Each section seemed self-contained, which only increases the exhaustion of the listener. I was reminded of the music of Berlioz, and its sensation of bustle without forward movement.
In a work like this, a lot of things have to go right, and some of these seem impractically demanding. For example, the Sanctus, with its transition from low growling tones to the high flights of the violin solo. The violin tune is so beautiful it might have featured in a concerto. We need a Jascha Heifetz playing the tune, but are unlikely to get it.
It is more likely we can get great solo singers, and unfortunately we need them, as we can hear from those recordings blessed with them. For example, the tenor entry in the Kyrie demands at least a Domingo, and it is cruel to complain that the singers in this performance did not match that. They sounded well-fitted in ensemble, and were committed.
I left feeling delighted, but also exhausted, and neither of these responses felt appropriate. Perhaps Beethoven's reach exceeded the grasp of even committed interpreters.