Beethoven: Missa Solemnis / Crowe, Johnston, Gilchrist, Rose, Gardiner, Monteverdi Choir

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BEETHOVEN Missa Solemnis • John Eliot Gardiner, cond; Lucy Crowe (s); Jennifer Johnson (mez); James Gilchrist (t); Matthew Rose (bs); Monteverdi Ch; O Révolutionnaire et...

BEETHOVEN Missa Solemnis John Eliot Gardiner, cond; Lucy Crowe (s); Jennifer Johnson (mez); James Gilchrist (t); Matthew Rose (bs); Monteverdi Ch; O Révolutionnaire et Romantique SOLI DEO GLORIA 718 (69:58 Text and Translation) Live: London 10/17/2012

When I first opened the foldout CD packaging and noted that Gardiner’s performance of the Missa Solemnis runs only 70 minutes, I immediately became crestfallen. That timing seemed to me ridiculously brief for this massive work. True, William Steinberg produced a beautifully phrased and well chiseled performance in 74:31, but that is four and a half minutes longer, just as Toscanini’s last (1953) version is around 73 minutes. Yet that last Toscanini performance always sounded a bit short-breathed to me, especially when compared to his two greatest versions, the 1935 one with the New York Philharmonic (a performance that clocked in around 86 minutes) and the 1940 NBC broadcast (which came in a few seconds under 80 minutes). Both of those had a breadth and spaciousness that almost sounded unearthly, so spectacular was his phrasing, and both had quartets of soloists that one could only dream of in one’s wildest imagination. In 1935 they were Elisabeth Rethberg, Marion Telva, Giovanni Martinelli, and Ezio Pinza, and in 1940 they were Zinka Milanov, Bruna Castagna, Jussi Björling, and Alexander Kipnis.

Imagine my surprise and delight, then, to start listening to this performance and be absolutely charmed and seduced by Gardiner’s tempos and phrasing. It turns out that the fairly quick timing of this performance is caused by his accelerating the fast sections of the work, particularly the Finale and part of the Sanctus, neither of which I have ever heard played so fast in my life, but in those particular sections the music can take it. Otherwise, this is a surprisingly fluid and flexible reading, not only leisurely where you like to hear it so but also with innumerable rubato touches and other little niceties that make the score sound more elastic and bring the phrasing to vivid life.

As for the soloists, all are fine, although tenor Gilchrist was not in good voice at the outset. He sounds rather wobbly throughout the Kyrie and the beginning of the Gloria, only bringing his voice into focus halfway through the latter; from that point on, he is fine. The other soloists are excellent from their very first notes, and the Monteverdi Choir sounds transcendent. I was also a bit uneasy about hearing the Missa played by a historically informed orchestra. Even though the music is mostly at a slow tempo and only occasionally explosive, I just couldn’t wrap my head around hearing this piece played by no-vibrato strings, but there, too, I was in for a pleasant surprise. The strings of the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique do not whine and drone like a MIDI, but rather play with a lovely sheen and at times even with warmth, something I wouldn’t have thought possible prior to hearing this release.

Moreover, by using what is almost a chamber orchestra (66 musicians plus the organ, played here by James Johnstone) and most certainly a chamber choir (45 voices, 25 of which are women), one hears “through” the textures in a way that only a master of orchestral transparency like Toscanini was able to bring out using conventional symphonic forces. In toto, then, I found this an extraordinarily fine performance and moving experience, certainly one of the jewels of Gardiner’s catalog of recordings.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley

Product Description:

  • Release Date: January 28, 2014

  • UPC: 843183071821

  • Catalog Number: SDG718

  • Label: SDG

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Period: ""

  • Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven

  • Conductor: John E. Gardiner

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Monteverdi Choir, Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique

  • Performer: James Gilchrist, Jennifer Johnston, Lucy Crowe, Matthew Rose


  1. Missa solemnis in D major, Op. 123

    Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven

    Ensemble: Monteverdi Choir, Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique

    Performer: Lucy Crowe, James Gilchrist, Jennifer Johnston, Matthew Rose

    Conductor: John E. Gardiner