Archive for March, 2020

Beethoven’s childhood is what one sees as the beginning of either a career as a serial killer or an insufferable genius. Fortunately to the world, he happened to become the most famous among all composers in the history of music. But the urge to inflict pain in those he loved was still there. That is probably why his music is never harmless, especially to those who are performing it. From that point of view, his Missa Solemnis is the musical version of an auto-da-fé: the demands are excruciating on everyone involved. Only yesterday, while listening to James Levine’s recording made live in Salzburg with Cheryl Studer, Jessye Norman, Plácido Domingo, Kurt Moll and the Vienna Philharmonic, it was impossible not to notice that even those formidable names had their share of shortcomings in it. I personally have never seen in the theatre an immaculate performance of that redoubtable choral masterpiece. Ultimately, it is a piece of sacred music where God is never entirely present – the spotlights are on man and their struggle to believe that it is not blind chance that rules the world.

The three concerts in the Sala São Paulo of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis mark the beginning of Thierry Fischer’s tenure as music director and principal conductor of the OSESP. The Swiss maestro is replacing Marin Alsop, who had an important role in establishing the orchestra’s international reputation in high-profile tours.

Mr. Fischer’s approach to the behemoth is of someone who is less concerned about what is not there, but rather about making the best of what is indeed available. As it was, this performance did not turn around polish nor clarity. At first, during the Kyrie, the tonal warmth of the choral singing (the sopranos in particular) paired with the bright and lean strings in the orchestra promised something transcendental, but the Gloria established this as a rather muscular performance. The orchestra (divides violins, double basses to the left) worked hard to match the hearty choral sound, especially in the fast tempo adopted by the conductor. The rhythmic vitality is certainly welcome, but complex fugal passages like Et vitam ventura were on the impressionistic side. I have to be honest: it was hard to resist the sheer energy generated by the effort of meeting the challenge at all costs rather than rounding off corners. At the point the performance reached the Sanctus, the idea of animation started to give way to the emphatic, sometimes even the awkward. Fortunately, the Benedictus suited the means at hand – the spalla played the violin solo with purity of tone and the orchestral bright and light orchestral tone prevented a syrupy Romanticism that sometimes tends to  creep in. After that, the proceedings lost momentum and the Dona nobis pacem finally had rather a mechanical feel about it.

Among the soloists, the most “important” voice was Brazilian tenor Atalla Ayan, whom I heard for the first time this afternoon. His tenor has a warm glow to it and, although there was a splash of Verdi in his singing, he never refrained from softer dynamics. Maybe it is my fault that I’ve been hearing recordings with tenors like Peter Schreier and Rainer Trost , but I couldn’t help thinking that a less covered sound around the passaggio would have made the tenor part seem easier, more spontaneous and even more projecting. At first, German soprano Susanne Bernhard’s tubular soprano had a hint of a hoot, but she gained in strength and showed unusual control in the Benedictus. Mezzo Kismara Pizzatti must have not been in good voice. She failed to project her low notes and her high register was curdled and strained. Michael Nagy did sing well, but he is not the resonant bass this music requires.


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