Missa Solemnis

Royal Festival Hall, London

There are a number of works by Beethoven that could justifiably stand as his magnum opus. For the man himself it was the Missa Solemnis, a judgement which has always seemed somewhat strange given how different the Mass is to pretty much everything else Beethoven composed and stood for, being more a meditation on the idea of creation than a more typical attempt to re-enact it in music. And while Beethoven remained a firm believer in God, he thought artists considerably more important than priests and held spiritual redemption to be more likely obtained in the concert hall than the church.

One thing on which all are agreed, however, is the sense of enormity that confronts both listener and performer of a work which, despite the familiar liturgical setting, always seems in its restless, searching melodic lines to exceed any unified conception. For this reason the strength and singularity of the conductor's vision is paramount if performance is to succeed in communicating the sublime as opposed to the merely chaotic - and in this respect, Christoph Eschenbach was definitely the man for the hour. Alive both to Beethoven's swirling forms and the minute details of the orchestral part, the German conductor was on commandingly intense form, conducting from memory and exuding nervous energy as his palpable evangelism transmitted itself through choir, soloists and orchestra, finding a truly extraordinary level of ensemble among such large forces.

While the Mass is on the whole kind to the orchestra – most notably to the violas and to the solo violin which, in the Benedictus, represents the soaring passage of the Holy Spirit – it is notoriously cruel on both choir and soloists. Both responded admirably to Beethoven's unforgiving challenges, Anne Schwanewilms's solo soprano and Dietrich Henschell's bass emerging with particular credit.

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