The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians argues that, if only Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis were performed today as it was at the time of its 1823 premiere, it would be better known and appreciated. At the first performance only three of the five movements were ventured, giving an unsuspecting public a way into this vast and perplexing work through its simplest and most lyrical music. In other words, our inverted 21st-century idea of authenticity goes against the conventions of Beethoven’s day, when the musical world was less uptight about the need for completeness and fidelity.
The reputation of the Missa Solemnis as a huge sing, too disparate in style to unify effectively in performance, helps to explain why some of the greatest conductors hesitate – or refuse – to confront it. It needs someone of John Eliot Gardiner’s zeal and self-belief to show how simultaneously thrilling and unsatisfactory this work can be. Wednesday’s performance by the Monteverdi Choir and Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique had many things in its favour – among them the impression that it had bedded itself down properly on a preceding European tour. Nothing short of rapid-fire choral entries will do, and the Monteverdi sopranos duly shone in their ecstatic embrace of the stratosphere.
At the same time this was not a reading that sought to overwhelm the listener with brute power or extreme emphasis: Gardiner kept a characteristically tight rein – too tight for his principal violin to make any impact in what turned out to be a surprisingly inhibited solo in the Sanctus. But the compactness of Gardiner’s ensemble and the intensity of his phrasing – fast speeds never the enemy of expression – made for an incandescent Gloria and a chastely operatic finale. Lucy Crowe was the ethereal soprano, with Jennifer Johnston, James Gilchrist and Matthew Rose making up a crisp and balanced quartet of soloists.
At the end, questions remained, as they should. Is the Missa Solemnis fundamentally liturgical or secular, “personal” or pantheistic, a work of comfort or doubt? The only certainty, after a performance as eloquent as this, is that Beethoven was struggling for answers to the very same questions.