High and Low: Beethoven's Missa Solemnis at the Kennedy Center

This was my first time attending Beethoven's Missa Solemnis in a live performance, a work so often overshadowed by the Beethoven's Sympthony No. 9, not only throughout history, but on the very night the two premiered simultaneously. Once again, Anne Midgette of the Washington Post offers an insightful review that focuses a great deal on the nature of the work itself; I will focus more on the performance.

General information: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Missa_solemnis_(Beethoven)

Missa solemnis | Ludwig van Beethoven
Soprano | Julia Sophie Wagner
Mezzo-Soprano | Daniela Mack
Tenor | Vale Rideout
Bass | Kevin Thompson
Violin | Nurit Bar-Josef

Conductor | Julian Wachner
Washington Chorus & Orchestra

Presented in the Concert Hall of the Kennedy Center
The ensemble for the evening was led by Julian Wachner, who conducted with an economy of motion that nevertheless communicated a clear interpretation of the work. It was an interpretation that eschewed the extremes; no wild Bernstein-esque conducting for the mass' biggest moments or excessively hushed pianissimi, elsewhere. While the latter might contribute to a sense of solemnity, overall this choice helped emphasize the complex writing, allowing it to stand on its own rather than extravagantly overplaying the mass' individual elements, as often happens (I would argue more appropriately) with Symphony No. 9. That's not to say that Wachner and the amassed ensemble performed poorly or that the interpretation felt misplaced, although there were a few places, particularly in the first two movements, where the ensemble felt not entirely coherent and the brass struggled to behave. Like so much of Beethoven's mature work (Symphony No. 9, Fidelio, etc.), the piece is an amalgamation of complicated ideas and forces, representing a transition from Classical to Romantic eras, a new era in Beethoven's troubled life, and a full slate of orchestral and solo forces. What was remarkable about Wachner's guidance was its ability to elicit stunning moments out of this complicated "mess." If it failed to elicit a uniform performance with a stunning finale, perhaps that is because, unlike the competing Symphony No. 9, it has no stunning finale and inherently lacks uniformity.

It was some of the solo performances that contributed particularly to these moments. Nurit Bar-Josef, serving as both solo violinist and concertmaster, gave a rivetingly lyrical performance in the "Sanctus." The searingly precise yet mellifluous, buttery line unwound, convincingly assuming the role of the descending Holy Spirit. In a work that, by default due to its considerable forces, even when they effectively hush, is quite loud and large, Bar-Josef offered a tranquil relief. As mentioned above, both the informal orchestra and the Washington Chorus performed admirably, if with a few slight missteps and places it felt they weren't quite onboard with Wachner's direction. For a relatively large choir, the Washington Chorus achieved admirable precision, if not quite that of what might be achieved by a smaller, Bach-like ensemble.

The male soloists provided an interesting mix to the ensemble, with bass Kevin Thompson seeming almost outsized for the part and tenor Vale Rideout complimenting him with a sound a notch too thick for the tone of the evening. Certainly, especially in our modern era, Beethoven requires large voices capable of singing over a full orchestra and choir. Though those proportions may have swung a bit too far in the post-Wagnerian era compared to the requirements in Beethoven's time, they are realities with which artists must contend. Still, Thompson's powerful voice, while grounding, felt almost overwhelming in the work, though a beautiful, resonant bass voice, without a doubt. Kevin Thompson fit well with this; the dark, thick sound he produces fits the germanic feel of Beethoven, but often became strained in what is still a rangy part. As a pair they fit well together but gave the sense of a Wagner opera more than a Beethoven mass.
If the men were a pair, so too were the women, and what a radiantly shining pair they were, truly giving life to the night and bringing to life Beethoven's (at times) vibrant writing. While Thompson and Rideout may have contended with Beethoven's off-kilter vocal writing (most noticeably present in Fidelio), perhaps these parts fit the female voice, or at least these female voices, more naturally. Daniela Mack's firm, rich, yet balanced mezzo-soprano voice anchored the many duet moments between the two voices (as well as ringing out on its own, as well). Whether in the lowest reaches or the highest, her uniformity of tone was unshakeable. If Daniela Mack was warmly glinting gold, Julia Sophie Wagner's bell-clear soprano wove around it like bright silver filigree. In a few of the most taxing moments she was pushed to her limit, but managed admirably, her voice well-fitted to its solo passages and working exquisitely in combination with Mack. The two, with Bar-Josef, were the night's highlight.

While perhaps not the most typical performance of Missa solemnis, this night provided a complex, intellectual, and at times gripping performance of the work, offering insights into many of its diverse, difficult facets. Meanwhile, the soloists offered some of the night's most stunning moments, helping usher the entire ensemble, choir and orchestra included under the direction of Julian Wachner, to a meaningful, if necessarily not clearly focused, performance.


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