Beethoven gets dressed up in period costume

Beethoven gets dressed up in period costume


norman lebrecht

July 11, 2020

Welcome to the 96th work in the Slipped Disc/Idagio Beethoven Edition


Beethoven: Missa solemnis in D major, Op. 123 (part 2)

The early music movement started up in the 1950s with a bifurcated mission – to explore European music before Bach and to perform the works of Bach and his successors in the style and on the instruments of their time. In the 1950s and 1960s, the movement – which adopted the tags ‘period-practice’ and ‘historically aware’ – concentrated on music from Monteverdi to Mozart. Once Beethoven cropped up, there were splits and feuds and the record industry saw a pecuniary opportunity in reselling Beethoven in a distinctly different sound.

Christopher Hogwood, an English harpsichordist who broke away from Neville Marriner’s Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields over differences in tempo and interpretation, persuaded Decca to back a Beethoven symphonic cycle. The results were loudly acclaimed in UK record magazines and sold mountains. Hogwood was not, however, the first of his kind. The Hanover Band, led by violinist Monica Huggett on the bucolic Nimbus label, performed Beethoven symphonies with as few as 29 players, and the German Collegium Aureum with no named leader managed on fewer still. I remember agreeing with a survey by John Rockwell in the New York Times which concluded that the Hanovers sounded most convincing of the three. Despite this Hogwood outsold the rest until, by the end of the 1980s he was challenged by serious rivals, at home and abroad.

Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who started out as a cellist in the Vienna Symphony Orchestra under Herbert von Karajan, pursued a particular synthesis of period practice and modern sound with his period-instrument Concentus Musicus Wien. he also worked with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, which used modern instruments in a smaller formation. Recordings with each of them allowed Harnoncourt to have his historic cake and eat it, with added sugar. He was not the most elegant of conductors but players responded to the depths of his research and to his considerable charm. Karajan, Harnoncourt told me, was outraged at his success.

The 1990s yielded John Eliot Gardiner, with a self-made ensemble, roughshod rhythms and some questionable historical theories and Roger Norrington, who thought long and hard about what degree of authenticiy might actually please a modern audience. Others in contention were Helmut Rilling, Philippe Herrweghe, Emanuel Krivine, Jos Van Immerseel and Frans Brüggen.

Very few of the period-instrument Beethoven symphonic recordings withstand comparison to the performances by traditional maestros in the Toscanini, Furtwängler, Kleiber and Karajan mould. But that’s just the symphonies. Old-style maestros were more wary of the Missa Solemnis. Furtwängler never performed (or recorded) it after 1930 and Toscanini steered clear of it until he was in his sixties. It may well be that the Missa Solemnis lends itself more readily than the symphonies to smaller forces, quicker speeds and lighter voices.

Gardiner, who recorded it twice – in 1989 and 2012 – generates tremendous excitement and an almost pagan spirituality. His soloists – Charlotte Margiono, Catherine Robbin, William Kendall, Alastair Miles – are not uniformly top-drawer and the quietude of the Agnus Dei goes missing in a rush for effect. Gardiner’s second shot, taken from a live concert at London’s Barbican Hall in October 2012 – has more of an Anglican atmosphere than Roman Catholic, but Gardiner delights in provocation and listeners much form their own opinion.

Helmut Rilling, a less imposing conductor, offers a wake-up-and-smell-the-incense call from the Gächinger Kantorei, Bach-Collegium Stuttgart, with soloists Pamela Coburn, Florence Quivar, Aldo Baldin, Andreas Schmidt, recorded in Stuttgart in 1989. Rilling is satisfying in the Missa Solemnis as Hamburg’s Eugen Jochum is in Brahms – no frills, no fuss, just what the composer wrote in the best available sound.

Harnoncourt goes deep in his 2016 Concentus Musicus Wien recording. Descended on his mother’s side from Emperor Leopold II and on his father’s from French Protestants, he has the best grasp than anyone of Beethoven’s religious idioms and gentle humanity. This performance, recorded in the year of his death, is both moving and immensely enjoyable, the high soprano of Laura Aikin greeting the Agnus Dei with childlike wonder.

I have struggled to acquire a taste for the Japanese baroque specialist Masaaki Suzuki and his Bach Collegium Japan. Their 2017 recording feels substantially improvised, the tempo shifts snatched out of thin air and the woodwinds too sour for my liking, although others swear by their fidelity. Herrweghe (2017) is marred by muddy textures and plodding tempi. Frieder Bernius with the Hofkapelle Stuttgart (2019) struggles to maintain momentum for reasons I can’t explain; maybe they are too pleased with the sound they are making on ancient tools.

Norrington, having started out with period instruments, applied historically aware techniques with the Stuttgart radio orchestra, achieving the best of both worlds – a pleasing sound in an unquestionably authentic performance. As with Harnoncourt, his symbiosis was not lost on maestros of a more conservative disposition. Simon Rattle educated the Vienna Philharmonic in period practice when they recorded the Beethoven symphonies together. Even Claudio Abbado reconsidered some of his approach. The most outstanding product of this fusion movement was the American music difrector David Zinman in his Missa Solemnis with the Zurich Tonhalle orchestra (not yet on Idagio). It is unassumingly among the most convincing performance of modern times.


  • As a spectator I regret to never have seen in concert Nikolaus Harnoncourt. His two new year concerts were fantastics especialy a Kaiser-Walzer we can see on Youtube in 2003. I remember in his last years also a long version of Vltava with the Concertgebouw memorable.

    • Onkel Hausfrau says:

      That is something to regret indeed. In 2012 I attended his public rehearsal of the Missa Solemnis with the RCO and the Groot Omroepkoor in the Concertgebouw. That really was something spectacular and very moving. This concert is available on DVD by the way. The Digital Concerthall of the Berlin Phil contains a fantastic recording of Beethoven’s 5th with Harnoncourt. I think it’s one the most intense performances of this symphony I’ve ever seen.

    • Greg Bottini says:

      You’re right on the mark re: those two New Year’s concerts, C79.
      Harnoncourt made the VPO actually WORK, rather than accepting the usual warm and fuzzy kicked-back autopilot renderings.
      Of others, only Karajan, Kleiber, and Maazel were truly successful in those NY concerts, for the same reason.

  • fflambeau says:

    It is not very good Beethoven. Sorry. There are many, better masses out there.

    • sam says:

      I agree, I think he gave the best material to his 9th, which he was composing at the same time, and all the rejected material went into the Missa.

      • Stuart says:

        evidence for this conjecture?

        • John Borstlap says:

          Sccording to the diaries of his nephew Karl, Beethoven tried to get the tune of ‘Freude schoner Gotterfunken’ under the words of the crucifixum, but gave up after 3 weeks.

          • John Soutter says:

            What do you mean: that LvB tried to sneak in the 9th’s choral theme as a bass somewhere beneath the ‘Crucifixus’ section?

    • M McAlpine says:

      Speak for yourself not all of us please

  • Eyal Braun says:

    Not mentioned here but probably my favorite version is the Blomstedt Gewandhaus version on The Querstand label. Beatiful and fresh version, like his symphony cycle with thw same orchestra.

  • Greg Bottini says:

    Of all the HIPsters mentioned above, I like Harnoncourt’s and Gardiner’s versions, though they are not on the same exalted level as Toscanini or Karajan. The rest are disposable.
    It’s interesting to me that I like just those two. But both Harnoncourt and Gardiner ventured far beyond the usual repertoire frequented by the HIP crowd. For example, I’ve always really liked Gardiner’s The Planets on DGG, and Harnoncourt’s Bartok CD on RCA is truly excellent.
    BTW, Rattle did not “educate the Vienna Philharmonic in period practice when they recorded the Beethoven symphonies together”. What nonsense!! The VPO tried to carry Rattle and failed (they’re not miracle workers). Those recordings are just plain awful, and they appear on NOBODY’S most desirable list.

  • SK says:

    An interesting history and discussion, but a few factual errors should be mentioned:

    — The Hanover Band Beethoven symphony recordings on Nimbus were conducted by Roy Goodman (they also performed the Eroica in this manner at Carnegie Hall in the ’90s at a concert I attended). Monica Huggett might have sat 1st chair, but it’s misleading to say she “led” when in fact Goodman conducted, which was not mentioned

    — The conductorless Collegium Aureum did have a leader — their concertmaster Franzjosef Maier, who led from the 1st stand in the Eroica and the Seventh, as well as in other recordings (but they did have conductors in their choral recordings)

    — Placing Helmut Rilling in the middle of the HIP conductors is misleading. Rilling used only modern instruments and has in fact expressed his opposition to period-instrument performance

    It is good to see Nikolaus Harnoncourt receive the credit he deserves, not only as a performer but especially as a leader of a movement in musical history, for which he should always be remembered. He was a pioneer and a wonderful musician and human being.

    • will says:

      RE The Hanover Band: since SK is (quite rightly) trying to correct a few factual errors, it should be further mentioned that Roy Goodman did NOT conduct all the HB’s Nimbus Beethoven recordings, only six of the nine: Symphonies 3,4,6, and 7-9. Monica Huggett directed’ ( i.e. ‘conducted from the 1st violin chair’) Symphonies 1, 2 and 5. Furthermore, a complete Nimbus recording of Symphony 6 directed by Monica was made in about 1985; although artistically successful, it was never released, for undisclosed reasons. Monica was not the ‘leader’/ Principal 1st violin on any of the Beethoven recordings conducted by Mr Goodman.

  • Mercurius Londiniensis says:

    Yes. Harnoncourt’s deep knowledge of the history of music gave him a way in to this elusive work, which draws on sources as disparate as Palestrina and Handel. I recall a terrific performance one Sunday afternoon at the Barbican Hall, at the end of which NH was awarded the RPS gold medal, an honour also granted to Beethoven.

    In a very different idiom, Colin Davis was another conductor who returned to the work again and again, with ever deepening insight. He conducted it at what turned out to be his final Prom, although that performance was marred by some errant entries from the vocal soloists. I am not sure if he recorded it, although — dare one say? — any recording of this piece is only a pale shadow of a good live performance.

    • Peter Phillips says:

      Live performances on disc: Toscanini/BBCSO in 1935, Horenstein/Philharmonia in 1958, Horenstein/BBCSO in 1961. The latter is actually a BBC studio performance with Stich-Randall, Procter, Lewis and Borg. Same line up as 1958 except Pears instead of Lewis.

    • christopher breunig says:

      “I am not sure if he recorded it, although — dare one say? — any recording of this piece is only a pale shadow of a good live performance.” Yes, two commercial recordings: Philips and RCA. But the Proms version is uploaded to YouTube in its entirety.

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    “It may well be that the Missa Solemnis lends itself more readily than the symphonies to smaller forces, …” Yes, but not necessarily to “quicker speeds” (if you are in a hurry don’t go to Mass). As for the “lighter voices”, it depends on the singers.

    My favorite Missa Solemnis has this balance of smaller forces and discrete “interpretation”. It was performed by a somewhat reduced Berliner Philarmoniker conducted by Karl Böhm in 1955, with the Chor der St. Hedwigs-Kathedrale and wonderful voice soloists (remastered in “The Originals” series in DG).

  • If you’ve ever disliked someone enough to torture them to death, here’s an idea: Strap them to a chair (firmly, because the WILL STRUGGLE!) apply headphones, and make them listen to Hogwood and the AAM’s rending of Beethoven’s Ninth. Bonus: no incriminating evidence!

  • Orin O. says:

    Just want to thank Helmut Rilling for an outstanding and both musically and emotionally satisfying week of Handel “Messiah” performances with the NY Philharmonic years ago. He brought his own chorus from Stuttgart and as a musician who appreciates inspiring conductors, this was one of the most enjoyable weeks of playing double bass (also with a perfect stand partner) that we have had. I wish he had conducted more weeks with us, to show young conductors how often “less is more” concerning physical conducting technique.

  • Monsoon says:

    I’m sure like many others, Gardiner’s 1989 version was my entry point to Missa solemnis and since then, I’ve always wondered why it’s not more popular.

    A shame that the 2012 version was recorded in the Barbican. I heard Gardiner perform it that year at Carnegie Hall and it was magical no doubt thanks to some help from Carnegie’s acoustics. I still vividly remember the sound decaying at the end of the Gloria and the audience being completely transfixed.

  • Nomath says:

    For what reason has Klemperer’s Missa fallen out of favour? About 20 years ago it was the almost universal favorite in the essential listening guides. Of the various affects in ancient Greek theatre, pathos has slipped down most, I believe. That’s why Beethoven 5 and 9 are now much below 6 and 7 in the ratings. Why do we enjoy Cosi and Schubert sonatas much more than 50 years ago? In our permissive society, pathos and heroics don’t resonate. That’s why I reckon Mahler’s time is also over the top.

  • Misha says:

    If I’m not mistaken, Horenstein was the first to use period instruments for his Vox recording of the Brandenburgs in 1954 (in which Harnoncourt plays the viola da gamba).

  • John Borstlap says:

    The most important contribution of HIP to Beethoven symphonies is the relative (!) reduction of the string body and its reduction of vibrato so that the sound, and balance with the winds, gets clearer, and more lively tempi. The use of period instruments is not necessary to get an ‘authentic’ sound, since the music is not about the sound.

    Interestingly, conductors who are the stronger advocates of period sound often reveal a lack of musicality, failing to give the rhetoric and expression enough space, with the result that it may sound ‘authentic’ but like a very mediocre ensemble from around 1800. The suspicion arises that they try to cover-up their musical deficiencies by drawing the attention to the sound and their admirable research, like [redacted], [redacted] and especially [redacted]. This a typical modernist phenomenon and has not much to do with the real music of 1800-1827. But the one who stands-out because of his profound musicality and intensity is Gardiner with his Orchestre Fanatique et Revolutionaire.

    • Yi Peng Li says:

      You’ve made me feel we can be kindred spirits in our fondness for Gardiner’s way with Beethoven. I know some people may object to his blunt rhythms but he is quite fastidious and robust and incisive in his orchestral attacks.

  • Yi Peng Li says:

    Could I add another correction to the chronology? The first Norrington cycle was released in the 1980s, concurrent with the first-generation cycles of Hogwood and the Hanover Band. Bruggen started his first cycle in the mid-1980s and finished the Choral in 1992. As such it might be more fitting to describe Bruggen as second generation, alongside Harnoncourt and Gardiner.

    • John Borstlap says:

      I always found Bruggen unbearable with Beethoven, Mozart etc. – too fast, no phrasing, wooden, unmusical. He did not ‘get’ the music at all.

  • ViolinsGivePleasure says:

    In relation to Your first entry on this subject, Mr. Lebrecht, You mention the extraordinary quality of the violin soloist In the Sanctus movement. I too find the Giulini version most satisfying, and – after googling on the subject – it seems that Rodney Friend was playing the soloviolin – as stated on “Discogs”, often very deliberate on details in their material, when describing the LP version of Giulinis recording. This claim seems reasonable, as Friend was Concertmaster in the LPO at that time.
    Yours LP