Summer Night
Northside Festival - Friday Pics

A Difficult Masterpiece


'The Missa Solemnis represents one of the most sublime fusions of creative instinct and divine conviction in the history of Western music." (Julian Haylock, from the liner notes to the Philips recording with Colin Davis and the LSO.)

 Music director Alan Gilbert is closing out his first season with the NY Phil this week with all guns blazing. The program, which I saw Wednesday night at Avery Fisher, began with the world premiere of Magnus Lindberg's Al Largo: an ambitious, 1/2 hour work of clarion brass and lush, cinematic strings that fell somewhere between a Strauss tone poem and a Howard Hanson symphony. For his part, Lindberg likened the work to Schoenberg's Verklarte Nacht, going so far as to quote an entire bar of that fin de siecle masterpiece towards the end. For me, it all added up to perfectly fine wallpaper, but wasn't particularly memorable.

No matter, for the main course was still to come. For years, I have been obsessed with Beethoven's Missa Solemnis: the daunting masterpiece which Beethoven spent more than four hard-fought years composing, right around the same time as his 9th Symphony and late piano sonatas. Beethoven himself considered the Missa his masterpiece, but it's suffered from relative obscurity in recent years: this was the first Philharmonic performance since Kurt Masur conducted it in a free Memorial Day concert in 1999 at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine (I'm still kicking myself that I never made it to that concert.)

The Missa has always occupied a difficult place in the repertoire. Neither a proper mass nor a symphony, it's Beethoven's personal statement of faith, one that doesn't conform to any standard tradition, be it musical or theological. For a concertgoer accustomed to the liturgical masterpieces of Bach or Haydn, the Missa can be a rude awakening, with its feral energy, harsh dissonances and seemingly endless sustains. DSC02280But it's differences are what make it great. The opening Kyrie is like a dagger of pure joy. The extended violin solo in the Benedictus is a wide oasis of calm. The Agnus Dei is full of violent storms, reminding us that Beethoven's God is no peaceful deity. And the false ending at the end of the Gloria is one of the most thrilling moments in all of music: Beethoven brings you to the edge of your seat and keeps you there for what feels like an eternity, finally resolving it in an earthquake of sound.

The Philharmonic and Westminster Choir gave a strong reading of the notoriously difficult work, though at times it all sounded a bit too bright and cheery, not to mention thin in Avery Fisher's lackluster acoustics. The soloists were all top notch vets from the Met Opera across the plaza: tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, bass Eric Owens, soprano Christine Brewer and mezzo Jane Henschel. 

Surprisingly, the audience reaction was lukewarm: only half the audience was left by the time of the second curtain call, which ended up being the last. 200 years on, and Beethoven's iconoclastic music still has the ability to confound. And inspire. 

The final performance of the Missa Solemnis is tomorrow night at 8pm; tickets are available at the Avery Fisher box office. Go with an open mind and experience the glory of this challenging but rewarding masterpiece for yourself.DSC02283