I have noticed only this evening in the Philharmonie that I had never listened to a performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis in Germany before! Because of its tremendous difficulties, it is not that ubiquitous, but I am glad I could finally get to hear it with the Berlin Philharmonic, which was this evening’s brightest feature. I personally dislike performances of this work that veer into the hysterical or the overstated – and the Berliners’ golden sound and unforced volume is the aural definition of “solemn”. Although the Chorus of the Bavarian Radio is not the clearest in articulation that I have heard, it is certainly one of the smoothest sounding – especially the sopranos – and that too concurred to the poise and scale of this performance. I know that Herbert Blomstedt has an extensive Beethovenian discography, but I am not acquainted with it and have never heard him conduct live before. If the conductor is to be congratulated when the orchestra – even an acknowledgedly excellent one – produces such powerful and exquisite sounds, then Blomstedt is to be praised. Other than this, I have found nothing truly impressive. If clarity means you can hear what every instrument is doing, then the performance was clear. But if by clarity you mean the ability to show where what every instrument is playing fits in the big structure, then it was not. In the hall, I felt that the performance lacked animation, that the accents were not truly incisive and that the level of ideas about this music was low. At home, I’ve listened to five minutes of my old Karl Böhm DG recording and the sensation was that of looking through spectacles at something you had previously seen without them.
Finding the right soloists can be an almost impossible task in any of Beethoven’s vocal pieces, but here he truly outdid himself. The choral parts are almost unsingable – and the solo ones require something similar to the Trovatore quartet (check Toscanini’s NBC live recording). This evening, for instance, a fine group of singers was gathered, but they still proved – as it usually happens – small-scaled in the hall. The counterpoint in the solo contributions in the final section of the Gloria (in gloria dei patris – amen” was very difficult to make out. In the Sanctus, you could clearly understand why some conductors prefer to use the chorus in passages such as the Pleni sunt coeli. This evening you had to guess 95% of it. Replacing Elza van den Heever, Ruth Ziesak has no problem with the high tessitura and floats mezza voce in the top of her range without effort. Hers is a light but very bright voice that runs in the hall when not under pressure. I had never heard Gerhild Romberger before and was immediately attracted to her fruity, dense voice. She is billed as a mezzo soprano, but “contralto” may be a more accurate description. She had to work hard for lightness in the upper part of her range and was a bit flat in the amen section of the Credo. For a dark voice, it is a particularly forceful one (she often overshadowed the tenor, which is most extraordinary). Richard Croft sang with extreme good taste, tackling fioriture and softer dynamics adeptly, but his voice is either too small and/or too velvety to pierce through the Berliner Philharmoniker. I have already seen Georg Zeppenfeld sing the bass part in this work – and my conclusion is that he was not in his best voice this evening. It lacked focus throughout and he seemed to be saving for the Agnus Dei, where he has a bit more to sing alone. Finally, I must mention Guy Braunstein’s full-toned yet crystal-clear solo violin in the Benedictus.