Lie back and listen to Ludwig: a didn’t-happen music review by Fraser Beath McEwing

March 16, 2020 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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Instead of arriving at the Sydney Town Hall next Wednesday night to hear the SSO, Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, organ, and four soloists perform Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, I’ll probably be waiting for an Uber-eat paper bag to arrive at home.

Fraser Beath McEwing

No doubt I’ll be feeling lucky that I haven’t (yet) caught COVID-19, but that will be a poor substitute. I was so looking forward to the concert. Out of respect I’ll probably listen to a recording or watch a performance of Missa Solemnis on YouTube. If you’re in the same boat, I’d like to share some research I did for the review of the concert that didn’t happen.

While some concertgoers may have felt short-changed when given a one-work program by the SSO, there are powerful counterbalances. Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, the Mass in D major, Op.123, is really a number of musical genres in one big, big box.

First, it is a five-part setting of the familiar Latin mass, and although not intended for a church service, was nonetheless inspired by Beethoven’s deeply felt religious faith.

Second, it is part grand orchestration, part-violin concerto, part-choir showpiece, part ensemble playing and part oratorio singing for four soloists. Into that mix we can throw the organ continuo – just to make sure nothing is left unsaid.

And third, it is arguably Beethoven’s finest work, demanding as it is on performers and audiences alike to fully embrace. Eminent British conductor, Sir Colin Davis said “this is an amazing piece of music – Beethoven’s greatest. It pretty well-prevented anybody from writing the mass again. It was written at the same time he was writing the ninth symphony and great though the ninth is, it doesn’t really compare.”

The audience wouldn’t have been aware of the exhausting rehearsals that always precede a performance of Missa Solemnis and the critical requirement for high calibre musicians. Conductor, Donald Runnicles, would have had to oxy-weld not only an array of separate forces but push them all to the limit. He was an excellent choice of conductor, evidenced by his fine handling of Faure’s Requiem played by the SSO in October of last year.

Of course, I don’t know how the performance would have sounded in the Town Hall. I was anticipating that its superior acoustics would have enabled the soloists, Siobhan Stasgg (soprano), Vasilisa Berzhanskaya (mezzo), Samuel Sakker (tenor) and Derek Welton (bass) to be much better heard. Comparative recordings of the work have the advantage of mixing.

But recordings are all we now have. Although . . . I have an idea, probably not feasible for next Wednesday, but certainly in the future. Why not televise the performance without an audience? Those who have bought tickets could be given an access code to watch it on their devices (to use a popular term). Or maybe let anybody watch it for free, but pop inappropriate advertising between movements to recover some costs.

SSO Sydney Town Hall concert 18 March 2020


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