Surmounting the Missa Solemnis

Surmounting the Missa Solemnis


norman lebrecht

July 10, 2020

Welcome to the 95th work in the Slipped Disc/Idagio Beethoven Edition


Beethoven: Missa solemnis in D major, Op. 123 (1818-20)

In the summer of 1818 Beethoven was informed that his long-term pupil Archduke Rudolph, the Emperor’s younger brother, had been appointed archbishop in the Czech town of Olmütz and expected a suitable piece of music for the occasion. Beethoven, who was sketching ideas for a new symphony, his ninth, broke off to write a ceremonial work that turned into his largest and most personal spiritual statement. While writing it, his friend Anton Schindler said, ‘his whole personality seemed to take on a diferent form… never before or since have I seen him in such a condition of detachment from all that is earthbound.’

He sent his nephew Karl to be educated by a priest and read several books on Christianity. He examined alternative texts of the Mass and took them seriously. Yet, from what we know from his diaries and the notes of his friends, at no time in the period of composing the Missa Solemnis did Beethoven ever enter a church for the purpose of prayer, celebration or confession. He was not, by any recognised measure, a practising Christian. All that we can state with certainty is that he immersed himself in a state of spirituality for the purpose of composing theis Mass, and that his plan for it was larger and loftier than his only other work in this form, the Mass in C a dozen years earlier. Schindler reports: ‘From behind a closed parlour door we could hear the master working on the fugue of the Credo, singing, yelling, stomping his feet. … The door opened and Beethoven stood before us, his features distorted to the point of inspiring terror.’ This was a work that everyone found daunting.

While writing the Missa Solemnis, he also occupied himself with two movements of the ninth symphony, the last three piano sonatas, the Diabelli Variations and the string quartet opus 127. Detach as he was from earthly concerns, he was still Beethoven, working all hours to extract musical truths from himself so long as his failing health permitted. In his dedication copy he wrote to Rudolph: Von Herzen—Möge es wieder—Zu Herzen gehn! (from the heart – may it return – to the heart!)

Probably because it was beyond the resources of a small town like Olmütz, the premiere was given elsewhere. Beethoven’s idea was to twin it in a single concert in Vienna with the ninth symphony, a proposal that was quashed by the imperial censor on the grounds that sanctity and humanism did not go together (not that many in the audience would have survived such a double premiere). Beethoven eventually consented to a performance on April 7, 1824 in Saint Petersburg in a concert sponsored by Prince Nikolai Galitzin for the benefit of widows and orphans of musicians in the city’s orchestra. Whatever was heard in Russia, stayed in Russia; the rest of Europe was unaware of the work’s existence until three movements were performed in Vienna on May 7, 1824, preceding the premiere of the ninth symphony. The complete work was not attempted in Vienna until three years after Beethoven’s death and it has been reserved ever since for commemorative occasions, to be heard in awe and trepidation.

On record it is comparably scarce – barely three-dozen recordings, against 150 for the Ninth Symphony. In nine movements, the Missa Solemnis lasts around 80 minutes and requires four vocal soloists, chorus and large orchestra.

The earliest commercial recording, by Bruno Kittel and the Berlin Philharmonic in 1928, is a sought-after Polydor rarity with inadequate soloists. A copy, recently made available on Youtube, runs over 85 minutes. Kittel (not to be confused with a notorious Nazi criminal of the same name) was an entreprising individual who snuggled up to the Hitler regime and produced a version of Moart’s Requiem that he sanitised of all references to Jews and Zion. He was, on this evidence, a sluggish, inefficient conductor.

Serge Koussevitsky recorded the Missa Solemnis in 1938 with soloists of the Harcard Glee Club (who probably paid for the privilege); this, too, need not detain us. Arturo Toscanini was 66 before he attempted the Missa Solemnis. It was in Carnegie Hall, December 1940, a moment of ineluctable solemnity for the European continent the maestro had left behind. The recorded sound of the NBC Symphony Orchestra and Westminster Choir is barely tolerable, but the soloists are stellar – Zinka Milanov (Soprano), Bruna Castagna (Alto), Jussi Björling (Tenor), Alexander Kipnis (Bass) – and the atmosphere is historic. Listen to Björling’s entry in the Gloria and the world stops revolving on its axis. I return to this recording in small doses; anything longer would erode the lining of my ears. A 1953 Toscanini concert has marginally improved sound, but less imposing soloists.

Bruno Walter in 1948 at Carnegie Hall is marred by audience noise, although Lorenzo Alvary’s whispered Agnus Dei is one of the wonders of the recorded world. Otto Klemperer, who taped the work in Cologone, Vienna and in 1966 in London, is more deliberate than Walter and less uplifting. His soloists are a matter of taste – Elisabeth Söderström, Marga Höffgen, Waldemar Kmentt, Martti Talvela. There is also an Erich Kleiber Stockholm recording with Birgit Nilsson in the cast; poor orchestra, but who cares?

Leonard Bernstein’s 1960 New York Philharmonic performance is one of his landmark claims to be counted as a great classical conductor, rather than a phenomenal, all-rounder. Bernstein’s pacing and phrasing are exceptional and his Anglophone soloists – Eileen Farrell, Carol Smith, Richard Lewis, Kim Borg – are of high calibre. Only the Westminster Chorus is slightly sub-par. Herbert von Karajan hired the Wiener Singverein in his epic 1966 Berlin set with deathless soloists – Gundula Janowitz, Christa Ludwig, Fritz Wunderlich, Walter Berry. Amazing the difference an idiomatic chorus makes. Karajan, agnostic as he was, was steeped as Beethoven was in deep-seated Germanic Catholicism. Both Bernstein and Karajan had another go at the Mass but neither improved on first efforts.

Two other mid-century maestros come into the reckoning. Georg Solti’s Chicago 1978 production has splendid Decca sound and soloists – notably Lucia Popp and Yvonne Minton – and an unexpectedly relaxed approach from a conductor who liked to drive his Beethoven hard. The Chicago brass herald the second coming as if it’s due at any moment.

Carlo-Maria Giulini, reverentially slow at 86 minutes, has a London orchestra and chorus playing well above themselves and a totally cohesive cast of soloists – Heather Harper, Dame Janet Baker, Robert Tear, Hans Sotin. The unnamed violin solo in the Sanctus is arguably the finest of them all.

I have more to say about recordings of this great piece, notably about the early-music movement and its prolonged assaults on Beethoven. … Continued here.


  • Don Ciccio says:

    One of the best and most underrated recordings of the Missa Solemnis is the little known one by Constantin Silvestri, fortunately available on YouTube. Technical side is a disaster, both in terms of sound and execution. But who cares with such an inspiring conducting?

    • Edwin says:

      Thanks for the recommendation. Silvestri was a thrilling conductor. Check out his recordings of Dvorak symphonies 7 and 9. They are on Spotify.

  • E. says:

    Beautiful essay — as always in this series on Beethoven. Thanks!

  • Amos says:

    Sorry for the predictable post but the 1967(?) live recording with George Szell and the CO is not to be missed. The chorus was trained by Robert Shaw and the soloists are first rate. The performance was released as part of the 7CD Szell Centennial and can be heard at:

    • Peter San Diego says:

      Thanks for this; I hadn’t been aware of it!

    • Monsoon says:

      Fully agree about the Szell live recording from Feb 2 and 4, 1967.

      I have the CD and it’s a prized possession. (And for radio recording, the sound is excellent.) It’s really a shame that the orchestra hasn’t reissued it.

      • Amos says:

        In the booklet accompanying the 7 CD box set the annotator noted that the Szell-era musicians who advised the Music & Arts Association on what to include insisted that the performance of the Missa be included because it had never been recorded commercially and it represented George Szell at his best. It is unfortunate that they didn’t find room for the 1968 Carnegie Hall performance of the Verdi Requiem .

        From Severance:

        Gabriella Tucci, soprano,
        Martti Talvela, bass,
        Janet Baker, mezzo soprano,
        Pierre Duval, tenor,
        George Szell, conductor,
        Cleveland, Severance Hall, 1968.

  • patrick G says:

    Very Very interesting and informative! Of course we come back tomorrow .

  • John says:

    The 1953 Toscanini on RCA is a commercial recording, made after the concert performance. Pristine Classical has released that concert performance and it differs (and is probably better) than the RCA recording.

  • Barry says:


  • fflambeau says:

    With all due respect, I think this is a subpar Beethoven piece and its inclusion on play lists is only due to the composer’s name. There are many, many better masses out there. It is part of the stifling effect on other composers that the Beethoven name has had.

    PS. I have a rare ORF recording of a much earlier mass by some composer identified as Beer (no other info given) that is superb. This is but one instance.

    • RobK says:

      What a relief to find someone else who has his doubts about the piece. I keep trying to work up the enthusiasm for it, but give me the 9th over the MS any day. The Benedictus, though, is sublime.

    • M McAlpine says:

      Subpar? Well we are all entitled to our opinion I suppose!

  • A Pianist says:

    My favorite was always the early Karajan with Schwarzkopf. Never got its due because it was one of the last recordings made in mono.

  • Harnoncourt ! says:

    it is impossible to write about Beethovens Missa solemnis withouth mentoning the recordings of Nikolaus Harnoncourt (especially the Salzburg live recording). He brought this piece fully to life.

  • Olassus says:

    Don’t forget Tate, who lessens the congestion!

  • Toscanini performed the Missa at least twice before this epic 1940 performance: 1935 with the NY Phil, and 1939 with the BBC Symphony. (He would have been 73 in 1940.) The Pristine audio edition of this Missa corrects a lot of the sonic issues of other editions. Regarding the Karajan, the first DG Berlin version is actually his second effort. He recorded it earlier with the Philharmonia. All four studio versions are all strong. I defer to Norman that this one may be the strongest, most moving.

    • Mercurius Londiniensis says:

      It is also worth hearing HvK’s live Salzburg performance from 1959, which EMI released a few year back from an ORF tape. The sound is worse than the 1966 recording, but the soloists (led by the young Leontyne Price) are superb.

    • Gaffney Feskoe says:

      Charles Munch asked Toscanini to perform the Missa with the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood but Toscanini reluctantly declined as he said he did not like to conduct in an outdoor setting. What a shame for posterity and what undoubtedly would have been a sell out crowd at Tanglewood.

  • Edoardo Saccenti says:

    “On record it is comparably scarce – barely three-dozen recordings, ”

    This is simply not true.

    I have 76 commercially available recordings of it…

  • Tully Potter says:

    There was only one Bruno Kittel! And yes, he was a terrible Nazi. On a more positive note, may I put in a word for James Levine’s recording of the Missa solemnis? Bernstein and Jochum also have many merits. The much-lauded Klemperer is rather square.

    • Peter San Diego says:

      Interesting: you and NL go against the British-critic grain, in that the vast majority seems to hold the Klemperer in divine awe. Or perhaps it was just the generation of critics I was reading in the 1970s-90s.

    • Pure Fool says:

      Bruno Kittel (Choral Conductor, Violin)

      Born: May 26, 1870 – Entenbruch, near Posen, Germany
      Died: March 10, 1948 – Wasserberg, near Cologne, Germany

      Bruno Kittel (born 1922 in Austria[1] – disappeared 1945) was an Austrian Nazi functionary in the German SS and Holocaust perpetrator who oversaw the liquidation of the Viln Ghetto

    • Micaelo Cassetti says:

      Kubelik is also very good.

  • Alexander Hall says:

    I hope, Norman, that you won’t overlook the recording Jascha Horenstein made with BBC forces in the late 1950s. A superb quartet of voices with the incomparable Teresa Stich-Randall among them and Horenstein gets the most out of orchestra and chorus.

  • christopher breunig says:

    Not Karajan’s ‘first effort’: there was a Philharmonia version issued in 1959

  • Greg Bottini says:

    Toscanini 1940 is the greatest of all Missae Solemni. The pacing is stunningly, dramatically, perfect – and the soloists are equal to the best ever (see below). The recording quality, in a good transfer, is not bad at all considering its provenance. If it erodes the lining of your ears, Norman, then you had better think about retiring them.
    In lovely stereo sound and missing the GOATness of Toscanini by the thinnest of margins, is Karajan 1966. HvK’s soloists are the only lineup to rival Toscanini’s.
    The HIP versions of this work that I have heard just don’t have enough massive power.
    An aside: Edgar Self, where have you been? I hope you’re well.

    • Ramesh Nair says:

      Absolutely, Greg. Someone has mentioned the Pristine classical transfers of the Toscanini 1939-40 NBC Beethoven cycle. Pristine has manage to acquire almost mint shellac transfers of this series, while all previous issues of this series have used inferior source material. The 1940 Missa Solemnis and the 9th were recorded in Carnegie Hall, and the sound isn’t as present as the symphonies that were recorded in the RCA studios. Presumably the Idagio site uses the older, more compromised transfers.

      Last week I finally received the new blu ray audio of the 1966 HvK Missa ( Corona caused a delay of 8-10 weeks for most airmail from the Northern Hemisphere ) – it sounds magnificent.
      BTW, the 1979 video of HvK conducting the BPO in the Missa Solemnis at a Salzburg Festival is another great performance, though the soloists aren’t the equal of the 1966 studio version.

      • Greg Bottini says:

        Hi Ramesh,
        I have the 1939 Beethoven cycle on a cheapo label, but it still sounds miles better than my old Arturo Toscanini Society LP set. The Pristine issue no doubt sounds even better.
        I’ll bet that HvK Missa blu-ray sounds super. I have it on a DGG “original-image bit-processing” twofer and it sounds pretty darned good. I never had the LPs of it.
        Keep washing your hands, my friend….

  • christopher storey says:

    It’s interesting that you describe this as a great piece. As a lifelong Beethovenian, I regarded this as far and away not only his weakest major composition , but also the weakest of all Masses by major composers

    • RobK says:

      Agreed, Christopher (see my response to fflambeau above). So much less-than inspired invention. But I’d keep the Benedictus.

    • Oscar says:

      I consider the Missa on top of universal choral works together with Monteverdi Vespers and Bach Mattaeus Passion.

      • John Borstlap says:

        I think you are right. The reason that the Missa is less popular than, for instance, the symphonies, is – apart from the expenses of choir and soloists – that the style is ‘less’ Beethoven and more the traditional style of church music.

  • Jeremy Wardle says:

    ==Giulini….the unnamed violin solo in the Sanctus is arguably the finest of them all

    Could have been Rodney Friend – one of the last things he did with LPO before moving to NYPO

  • Carlos Solare says:

    “Arturo Toscanini was 66 before he attempted the Missa Solemnis. It was in Carnegie Hall, December 1940,…”

    A year and a half earlier (28 May, 1939) he conducted it at the BBC, of all places, also with Milanov as his leading lady. An even earlier Ney York performance (28 April, 1935) has been acclaimed by many as his most heartfelt reading of this score.

    • Pedro says:

      A few years ago, I gave a copy of the BBC recording to Maurizio Pollini who only knew Toscanini’s NBC recordings and though the sound was very poor. He very much enjoyed it.

  • M McAlpine says:

    At the time it came out Karajan’s account was inexplicably compared unfavourably to Klemperer’s but the everything except the choral singing Karajan has the advantage with four absolutely superb soloists, the best on any recording. It shows just how important well blended soloists are in this work, as Klemperer’s are poor (on the day) by comparison.

  • David H says:

    There is a great direct release of a 1967 live recording by Szell and the Cleveland, released in their boxed set for Szell’s centenary.
    Bass Vocals – Ezio Flagello
    Chorus – The Cleveland Orchestra Chorus
    Chorus Master – Robert ShawContralto Vocals – Florence Kopleff
    Soprano Vocals – Saramae Endich
    Tenor Vocals – Ernst Haefliger

  • P. Maffei says:

    When James Levine conducted the Missa Solemnis with the Boston Symphony in 2006 he wrote in the program notes “‘Missa Solemnis is the greatest piece ever written. Really, l mean it.” Levine was America’s most-respected conductor at the time at his statement had a lot of weight to it

  • Novagerio says:

    Don’t forget Karajan’s 1958 recording made in Vienna’s Musikverein Saal with the Philharmonia Orchestra (solo violin: Hugh Bean), very short before the introduction of stereo sound:

  • Ken says:

    Toscanini conducted the “Missa solemnis” with the NYP in 1935 and the BBC in 1939. Both are documented radio transcriptions.

  • Stereo says:

    It was probably either Manoug Parikian or Hugh Bean given it was probably the Philharmonia.

  • Pedro says:

    I have two more official MS recordings by HVK, both made before the DG mentioned here. One with the Philharmonia and another one live from Salzburg, both on EMI and both excellent. There is also a live performance at the RFH on Testament.The last one, made in Berlin in the mid-1980’s is also excellent and was made at the time of two extraordinary live performances I have attended. I’m not at home and I dont’have the exact dates.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    I will come back tomorrow. If possible it would be greatly appreciated to also name the violinist. That is one of the great concertmaster moments in the literature.

  • We privatize your value says:

    Martti Talvela, a matter of taste? I’d say that his place as one of the greatest bassos of the second half of the 20th century is secure and acknowledged by all.

  • Stephen Owades says:

    Koussevitzky’s Boston Symphony recording from 1938 was taken from live concert performances. The chorus, the Harvard (not “Harvard”) Glee Club and Radcliffe Choral Society, was a regular choral partner to the BSO (which didn’t have its own regular chorus until the formation of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus in 1970). And the soloists were all regulars at the Metropolitan Opera, not “of the” chorus.

  • Walter Rudolph says:

    I think HAPPY BIRTHDAY greetings are in order to you! And thanks for the great JUSSI quote in the Toscanini version. Guild GHCD 2248/9 is a remastered Toscanini well worth hearing!

  • SK says:

    It’s interesting that there are musical people who just don’t think much of this Missa (two in this column, above, and at least two others I’ve met). Yes, everyone is entitled to their opinion, and even masterpieces may have their detractors. I don’t expect to change your mind, but as someone once wrote, there comes a point in the acceptance of music when the work itself
    is no longer on trial —
    the audience is.

    If you still don’t “get” the Missa, I submit that the failure is on your part, not Beethoven’s. It might not be “the greatest piece ever written,” but it is surely one of the great choral works
    in the repertoire.

    In a review of a Bernstein/BSO performance many years ago, the writer and critic Michael Steinberg wrote, “The Missa Solemnis is Beethoven’s single greatest achievement.” I’m inclined to accept his view rather than that of the nay-sayers.

    • Hilary says:

      Bar 4 : chord 6. (Bminor)
      Bar 5: chord 4 with an added 6th (G6)
      Bar 10-11: gorgeous chromatic line

      Heavenly….Who couldn’t respond to this?!

    • Stuart says:

      Beethoven’s Missa solemnis is an acquired taste. I have been going to opera and concerts for 50 years and collected a lot of recordings along the way. I disliked this work for a long time – my issue but I just didn’t like the work. Recently I heard the 1940 Toscanini performance and it all fell into place. Toscanini made it all work for me in ways others had not. By the way, the best way to enjoy Toscanini’s 1939 symphony cycle and the 1940 Missa performance is via Pristine Classical – head over heels better than other editions.

    • Bruce says:

      I like that remark (the music is not on trial; the audience is).

      I will say, however, that the first time I heard the piece was Karl Bohm’s loud, thick, dare I say bombastic recording with Vienna, with a mostly terrific-looking lineup of soloists (Margaret Price, Christa Ludwig, Wieslaw Ochmann – sorry, never heard of him – and Martti Talvela). I found it unlistenable and thought surely, with such a great conductor and personnel, it must be my fault or … could it be the composer’s? Surely not.

      Then, when I heard Harnoncourt’s and John Eliot Gardiner’s recordings — smaller, lighter, less “monumental” — I could finally hear the piece, and understand what all the fuss was about.

      I should go find that Bohm recording again and see if I can get anything out of it now. Maybe it was the recording engineer’s fault (or maybe it will sound different to me now).

  • Ralph Fisher says:

    As to the 1960 Bernstein recording: Only a moron would consider the Westminster Symphonic Choir in this performance sub-par. No other commercial recording has choirs that even come close to their glorious sound.
    Nevertheless, you’re pretty much on spot with Bernstein’s approach/interpretation of the piece. It’s one of his very best recordings.

  • Edgar Self says:

    The bass solo in the “Miserere” reminds me strongly of Boris, especially when Alexander Kipnis sings it. No wonder! Complete with answering chorus of mouzhiks. I’ve sung it several times with orchestra, off my balcony, and in my dreams. I would like to hear Hans Hotter do it but ever have. Hans Sotin, Kurt Moll, Jphn McCurdy, or Kipnis’s great pupil Yi Kwai-Zi would be ideal

    • Edgar Self says:

      Franz Crass is another excellent German bass ideally suited for the “Miserere”. I like Kaerajan with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, if I have that right. But Kipnis in good sound and voice would be my ideal for the “Boris”-like phrases echoed by the Austrian Catholic moujiks, retainers of Ccardinal Archbishop, the Archduke Rudolph, Beethoven’s ranking pupil, possibly excepting Prinve Louis-Ferdinan of Prussia, who died in battle.

  • Robert Edwards says:

    The Westminster Choir performance was subpar? By what standard? This is one of the most glorious and thrilling renderings of the Missa Solemnis that will ever be heard. Mr. Lebrecht, you are common.

  • Edgar Self says:

    I very uch regret the lack of any Furtwaengler performance to tell us what he might have been able to do with this admittedly problematical work that i sang many times, not alas with him.

  • Edgar Self says:

    The Miserere passage is of course in the Agnus Dei with bass solo. Especially when Alexander Kipnis sang it, it reminds me irresistably of Boreis’s exchanges with the mouzhiks. Anyone else hear or think of this or is it merely a private madness?