How do you follow Mahler 8?

Last night’s Birmingham concert in our CBSO100 series:

 

Beethoven Missa Solemnis Ex Cathedra / CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★

Performing this work work just a week after the CBSO’s stupendous Mahler’s eighth symphony was a gamble. With those massive hall-filling forces still in the mind’s eye the sight of a slimmed-down orchestra (just two double basses) and single choir on the platform was a shock. Such comparisons are invidious, after all Beethoven didn’t compose a Mass of a Thousand, but surely it would have suited the scale, and style of this performance to have used the Town Hall instead.

Ex Cathedra is celebrating its 50th anniversary and there was, as always, much to admire here under founder and conductor Jeffrey Skidmore. In his programme notes he wrote: “the music is awe-inspiring but we shouldn’t be overawed.” It’s a compliment, albeit a back-handed one, to say that we weren’t. The triple forte and the trombone entry at “omnipotens” sounded muted and the martial music – which startled and bemused early listeners – merely quaint. What succeeded were the work’s many quiet and reflective passages: the wonder and mystery of the Incarnation; the quiet tread of the organ in the Praeludium; the lovely violin solo, truly dolce cantabile. The choir were first rate as were the soloists, while tucked away obscurely in the choir: the radiant Carolyn Sampson (soprano), Sophie Rennert (mezzo), Andrew Tortise (tenor) and Roderick Williams, although he lacked the ideally resonant bass notes for the Agnus Dei. The interval was a dim idea: people munching ice-cream between the Credo and Sanctus hardly fitted Beethoven’s performance directive – “Mit Andacht” (With Devotion).

Norman Stinchcombe

 

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  • I wonder if some orchestras still have a requirement in their master agreement that every concert must have an intermission.

    I remember Leinsdorf mentioning this in his memoir. He wanted to do the Verdi Requiem in Boston. Their contract required an intermission. Putting an intermission in the middle of the Requiem was anathema to him, so he programmed an additional work so the requirement could be satisfied.

    • Hi Bruce,

      You may be right about some orchestras but the CBSO do concerts without intermissions (various Mahler symphonies etc.) as required.

      This concert was a joint venture with ‘Ex Cathedra’, which is a choir and early music ensemble, so that may have been a factor in this case.

      Missa Solemnis is a demanding work but it is usually performed without a break, isn’t it?

      • The Toscanini 1940 performance is 80 minutes long. Putting an intermission after the Credo makes no sense. Better to program a Haydn (or some such) symphony to start the evening and break after that.

  • Many, many years ago (I think it was the late 1940s) Rafael Kubelik at the San Francisco Symphony conducted Smetana’s Ma Vlast with an intermission. Seems rather odd today – the work is only about 75 minutes long and was the only piece on the program.

    • Only time I ever heard the Czech Phil play Má Vlast live (Carnegie 1990 or so), they had an intermission after Sárka. It’s 6 pieces, not one.

  • Munching ice cream at intermission is one of those charming anglicisms that I only recently discovered on a self-directed tour of symphony concerts in the UK last month — though I think scotch & soda would be a little more civilized.

  • Go to the Concertgebou in Amsterdam, all refreshments at the intermission are included in the ticket price, that is coffee, wine and gin I guess , I just had wine.

  • A review that names the singers — and of course it must — should also name the violinist who plays the famous concertmaster solo.

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