Beethoven’s mighty mass

October 15, 2015 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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One big bite filling the whole program was the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s offering for the ATP Master Series concert last night, writes Fraser Beath McEwing.

If you don’t like Beethoven, this concert is not for you, but if you do, it is a feast of his best and most inventive writing.

David Robertson  Photo: Ken Butti

David Robertson Photo: Ken Butti

Perhaps with an eye on PR, Beethoven said that his Missa Solemnis Mass in D Major Op 123 was his finest work. That statement, coming from a composer who’d produced nine of the world’s most beloved symphonies to say nothing of 32 ground breaking piano sonatas along with a prolific output of other superb works, is not to be taken lightly.

It must be said however, uplifting as the Missa Solemnis is, it still poses an endurance test for performers and audience alike. Running continuously for nearly an hour and a half, it doesn’t offer a breather to anybody. The four vocal soloists, the massed choirs of 120 singers and a well-stocked symphony orchestra are all busy throughout. There is also an additional workload for the leader of the orchestra who doubles as soloist in some sublime passages that could be taken for a violin concerto.

Far from being a devout Catholic, Beethoven was in that category of composers who drew musical inspiration from the idea of worshipping a deity, no doubt enhanced by the architectural grandeur of European cathedrals where other-worldliness seems to dwell naturally. Much later, Rachmaninov, also disinterested in formal religion, did something similar with his Vespers.

Although the ideal setting for Missa Solemnis would be a giant cathedral, it was always destined for the concert hall, in this case, the Sydney Opera House. And as such, that presents the usual challenge of hearing solo voices above opposing teams comprising some 200 musicians belting away behind them.

David Robertson conducted the massive assembly of the SSO, the Sydney Philharmonic Choirs (prepared by Brett Weymark) with font-of-stage soloists Susanna Phillips (soprano), Olesya Petrova (mezzo), Stuart Skelton (tenor) and Shenyang (bass), while sitting halfway to heaven, among the pipes, was David Drury playing that wonderful organ. I’d guess rehearsals would have been taxing to say the least, but the performance ran like a giant Swiss watch.

In my experience of past performances where four vocal soloists have tried to be audible above the orchestra and choir (as is Rachmaninov’s The Bells), the result has usually been disappointing. Watery tenors, gurgling bases and wispy sopranos didn’t cut the mustard, but in this performance of the Missa Solemnis the soloists were outstanding. Maybe we can thank maestro Robertson for balancing the forces, but as soon as each of the four singers had made their entrances I knew they’d staked their claim to be heard.

Susanna Philips’ big notes were sublime; Olesya Petrova’s contribution was like honey; Shenyang’s power was in keeping with his massive frame; while Stuart Skelton came across with a richness and clarity that few tenors could match in this setting.

Fraser Beath McEwing

Fraser Beath McEwing

Missa Solemnis spans five movements, each bearing a familiar heading and using texts from the Catholic mass, but reaching far beyond the liturgical boundaries of the time. This is one hell of a difficult work to perform, with its sudden bursts of passion and contrasting confidential intonations from the choir all punctuated by ever-changing combinations of soloists, choir and orchestra. And throughout, timpanist Richard Miller was the constant gatekeeper as he underpinned the stressed notes that so often appear in Beethoven’s orchestral works.

I’d only ever seen SSO leader, Dene Olding, in profile on the Opera House stage, but during the Sanctus – Benedictus (penultimate movement) he stood and faced the audience to beautifully play a long solo violin passage, demonstrating what a fine violinist he is. I also noted that during this quasi-concerto section he played without reference to a score. That added a fresh, interpretive dimension to his performance.

In his excellent program notes, David Garrett names the ‘most awe-inspiring moments of the mass’ as occurring in the Sanctus – Benedictus where you hear 120 choristers singing just above a whisper – and that’s spine tingling. Garrett also includes in his coverage a brief picture of Beethoven’s original score of Missa Solemnis. Like most of Beethoven’s scores, it is such a mess of ink spatters and crossings-out that you’d wonder how anybody could read or play it. It contrasts to Mozart’s scores that are blemish-free, indicating that he’d nutted it all out before dipping his quill in the ink.

Fraser Beath McEwing is an accomplished pianist and commentator on classical music performance and is a founding member of The theme & Variations Foundation Advisory Board which provides assistance to talented young Australian pianists. His professional background is in journalism, editing and publishing. He is also the author of three novels. and a Governor of the Sir Moses Montefiore Home.

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