Missa Solemnis Concert March 2020

Missa Solmnis thumbnailThe Exeter Philharmonic Choir’s celebration of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth could not have been more ambitious at the concert it gave at Exeter Cathedral on 14 March 2020. Any choir facing one of the Everests of classical choral music, the Missa Solemnis, must meet so many challenges that Beethoven lays before it – the dramatic contrasts in dynamics and tempi, alarmingly regular visits above the stave, and two of the most difficult fugues facing any large choir; and then, specific to this concert, the acoustic of a venue that favours orchestra over choir in a big choral work.

 

It is little wonder, therefore, that this greatest of Masses is rarely performed and, when it is, would benefit from a firm orchestral foundation, on this occasion provided by the excellent English Chamber Orchestra and evident from the start of the opening Kyrie. It was a real asset to hear Beethoven’s often innovative accompaniment, in the Agnus Dei for instance, played so confidently under conductor Howard Ionascu’s dynamic direction. Perhaps this confidence encouraged a prominence to the orchestral sound that in the Gloria and Credo at times overwhelmed the Choir’s contribution. But the experience of hearing these two particular movements, taken at brisk tempi which energetically drove the music forward to the heights of celebration, was undeniably exciting. In particular, there was no slackening in the Choir’s singing of the movements’ vast concluding fugues which left audience members on the edge of their seats.

If the preceding movements depend on the chorus driving forward the energy of the music, then it is the soloists who must carry the succeeding, more contemplative, Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei. Here the performance owed much to the fine team of distinguished soloists, Emma Tring (soprano), Marta Fontanals-Simmons (alto), Peter Auty (tenor) and Robert Davies (bass). The composer’s extraordinary conception for the Benedictus, dependent on a solo violin (most sensitively played by the ECO’s leader, John Mills) hovering ethereally around the four soloists, was beautifully effective.

Beethoven’s setting of the concluding Agnus Dei again takes us into new territory, with the singers’ contributions interrupted by the orchestra with martial interjections and a presto orchestral fugue – no quiet resolution here to the Mass. The soloists set their mark on the special pleadings of this movement, while the Choir (with an effective lilt to its delivery of Dona nobis pacem) also showed the ability to sing with real sensitivity (and here and elsewhere, just the occasional entry hesitation) in the quieter moments.

Against the background of the Coronavirus crisis, it was slightly disappointing that audience numbers were not as great as they might have been for such an impressive concert. For those able to attend, it was a privilege to hear the Missa Solemnis in a performance that presented the work as the uplifting masterpiece that it undoubtedly is. Howard Ionascu and his Choir are to be congratulated on taking the opportunity of the composer’s birth celebrations to share with us Beethoven’s grand confession of faith

This particular event was the Exeter Philharmonic Choir’s annual concert in aid of the Lord Mayor’s Charity, on this occasion the City Community Trust.


David Batty

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