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Fidelio notwithstanding, the Missa solemnis is surely the most singular, certainly the most directly devotional, piece composed by Beethoven. Rooted in an appreciation of the great choral scores of the baroque and renaissance eras, it deports itself with that distinguishing blend of poetry, masculinity and spirituality wholly peculiar to Beethoven.

Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s sublimely beautiful, immensely moving account gives the lie to recent performance practice emphasising only one, occasionally two, and seldom all three of those elements. There’s not a sound to be heard from the audience throughout and following the final note a long, hushed silence as the full import of what has just been heard begins to sink in and applause breaks out.

Recorded live in the spacious but focused acoustics of Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw in April 2012, this is a deeply compelling, wholly involving performance that negotiates the often dramatic shifts in mood, register and style of the Mass with illuminating gracefulness, the venue’s venerable modern-instrument orchestra – here reduced in size to more authentic numbers – adroitly accommodating nuances of period performance practice, with violins antiphonally divided, timpani playing with hard sticks and vibrato applied with telling delicacy.

A precisely focused, serenely still opening gives way to an expansive Kyrie that swells with controlled fervour and feeling towards the exuberant Gloria, teeming with phenomenal energy and colour yet shining brilliantly out with coherence and clarity. At 83, Harnoncourt remains altogether intuitive, inquisitive and supremely supple. Witness his handling of the rollercoaster-wild Credo, the transition from sepulchral dark to luminous light in the Sanctus and the magnificently framed Agnus Dei conclusion.

The quartet of impeccably contrasted and complementary soloists are beautifully matched, the Netherlands Radio Chorus wholly in tune with Harnoncourt’s vision of the piece, the orchestral accompaniment rich and ravishing throughout.

And just as all concerned create a delight for the ear, Joost Honselaar’s elegant, conspicuously discreet video direction and Ronald de Beer’s eloquently tempered editing create a delight for the eye. Highly recommended.

MICHAEL QUINN Read the full review on Agora Classica


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