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Michael Tilson Thomas's First 'Missa Solemnis'

June 24, 2011

A nearly flawless performance is marred by discordant soloists

There are few masterworks in the choral repertoire that are as packed with contradictions as Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis.”

The composer looked to earlier liturgical traditions to compose his 1823 mass, but with its unexpected harmonies and at times almost polyrhythmic feel, the work seems strikingly modern. Heroic fugues burst out of the texture only to recede suddenly into moments of hushed silence. The closing sentiment of the final movement, the Agnus Dei, is a call for armistice—“dona nobis pacem” (“grant us peace”.) And yet, with the Napoleonic Wars a close memory in the composer’s mind, it’s riddled with the echoes of the battlefield. Picking up on the restless strings and distant trumpet calls of earlier in the movement, an ominous kettledrum intones a hollow death knell on a foreign-sounding note.

In his take on the “Missa Solemnis” with the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus this week at Davies Symphony Hall, Michael Tilson Thomas throws himself feverishly at the conflicts in the work, which articulates the composer’s own spiritual struggle. (Beethoven grew up in a Catholic household and believed fervently in God, but was generally hostile to the trappings of formal religion.)

At last night’s concert, the first of four happening through Sunday, it was as if the conductor was trying to channel the desperate energy of a composer in the twilight of his life yearning for spiritual guidance in a world beset by war.

The effect of this approach was breath-taking in its intensity and packed with sublime musicianship from the chorus and orchestra.

But some of the tension encoded in Tilson Thomas’ bravura effort was misplaced owing to discord of a less desirable sort from the quartet of solo singers.

Containing what the musicologist Michael Steinberg describes as “probably the most difficult fugue ever written for voices,” the “Missa Solemnis” is as rewarding as it is hard to perform. “I have a very strong love-hate relationship with the work,” Christine Brewer, the solo soprano for this week’s performances, told me a few days ago. “It’s not a very singer-friendly piece but it has so much depth.”

This is the first time Tilson Thomas has helmed the piece (it was last performed by the San Francisco Symphony in 1995 in Herbert Blomstedt’s last season as music director) and he seems acutely aware of its challenges. A chorus member told me that the conductor worked more intensively with the group to prepare for these concerts than is customary, adding extra rehearsals and providing each singer with detailed, marked-up scores.

The work paid off: Tilson Thomas’ command of both the instrumental and vocal ensembles shone through.

The opening Kyrie movement, with its rolling waves of D Major chords and pleading sobs from the singers in the “christe eleison” section, perfectly articulated the sentiment scrawled by the composer on the first page of the score: “Von Herzen—möge es wieder—zu Herzen gehen!” ("From the heart—may it therefore—go to the heart!”)

The Gloria unfolded in an adrenalin-fueled blazon of sound with the chorus engaging in a head-on skirmish with the strings. The anarchy gave way to moments of pitiful intimacy when the soloists emerged from the dense texture with their whimpered cries of “O Miserere.” Prefacing “Miserere” with “O” is a Beethoven innovation. Painfully human, the sequence is one of the strongest declarations in the work of the composer’s extremely personal spiritual views.

Tilson Thomas made the most of the work’s many jolts and shocks. The Credo in particular delivered the musical equivalent of a hit and run on the audience. The weird, arrhythmic start of the “crucifixus” section ballooned into a sonic landscape that swung with abandon between fortissimo blasts and disturbingly lyrical quiet passages. When the tenors entered a cappella with ecstatic yelps during the “crucifixus” section, the effect was nothing short of blindsiding.

The overwhelming push-pull of this arresting piece demands complete unity and precision from all the forces involved. But while the chorus and orchestra faithfully followed Tilson Thomas on his seat-of-the-pants mission through the wild jungle of Beethoven’s score with brave unity, the soloists seemed at times to be scattered.

The “Sanctus” movement in particular suffered from poor intonation as well as ragged phrase endings. The blend in the quartet passages frequently jarred as the vocalists appeared to be duking it out for supremacy like pontiffs in a religious debate. The female voices were given to overly-dramatic swoops and tenor Gregory Kunde’s voice sounded strained —as if it were being shoved through a juicer or meat-grinder. There was little that Tilson Thomas could do to reign in the divas.

If this issue added an undesirable slant to an otherwise satisfyingly hair-raising performance, all was redeemed towards the end of the evening by Alexander Barantschik’s spiraling, romantic violin solo in the “Benedictus” and bass soloist Ain Anger’s velvety opening to the “Agnus Dei” in the swarthy key of B minor. Terror and rhapsody fused in these passages dragging us, willing or not, closer to God.



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