Haitink’s spacious approach reaches the summit with CSO in Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis”

Fri Oct 26, 2012 at 2:23 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Bernard Haitink conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, CSO Chorus and soloists in Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis” Thursday night at Symphony Center. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis has so much accumulated musical and historical freight it’s almost impossible for a single performance to encompass the dizzying myriad elements. It is Beethoven’s most outward religious statement and in its sprawling 80 minutes reflects the composer and his singular blend of Christianity, pantheism and a kind of personal manifest destiny in music of soaring heights, touching intimacy and raw sonic impact.

Bernard Haitink, who bowed out of last week’s Brahms program, was on hand Thursday night to lead the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, CSO Chorus and soloists in the Missa Solemnis at Symphony Center.

For those familiar with Haitink’s Beethoven style, Thursday’s performance will hold no surprises. There were the same esteemed qualities: stately tempos, remarkable transparency, an innate musical integrity and authority, the emphasis on refined tone and dynamic detailing, and bombast firmly avoided.

While this was as tasteful a performance of the epic mass as one is ever likely to hear, at times one wanted a bit more of the dramatic punch and bluster that is just as much a part of Beethoven’s makeup. The epic choral fugue in the concluding section of the Gloria hung fire at a rather moderate tempo and tension was occasionally slack in the latter sections of the Credo.

Still, Haitink’s patient organic approach paid dividends in the long line and architectural grasp with a flowing spacious performance, that ultimately reached Beethoven’s peaks.

The performance benefited from a largely excellent quartet of soloists. Soprano Erin Wall sang with commitment and ardor throughout. Bernarda Fink was fitfully inaudible early on but sang with greater projection as the performance unfolded. Anthony Dean Griffey swallowed too many of his notes and seemed stretched by the high tessitura with uneven production. Bass-baritone Hanno Müller-Brachmann provided the most expressive solo singing of the evening in the concluding Agnus Dei, and sonorously anchored the quartet at the low end.

Haitink elicited responsive playing of great tonal refinement to match his fluent, spacious reading, some fleeting horn slips and errant entrances apart. Robert Chen’s sweet, silken-toned violin solo in the Benedictus was balm to the ear, with fine support from clarinetist John Bruch Yeh, flutist Mathieu Dufour and  guest timpanist Michael Israelievitch from the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.

But it was really the CSO Chorus’s night to shine and that they did quite gloriously. Coming off their acclaimed tour performances of Carmina Burana, Duain Wolfe’s singers delivered resplendent corporate vocalism—in some of the  most tortuous choral writing in the repertory—conveying the wide-ranging expression from spiritual mystery to bleak introspection and exultant rejoicing.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. cso.org; 312-294-3000.

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One Response to “Haitink’s spacious approach reaches the summit with CSO in Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis””

  1. Posted Oct 26, 2012 at 9:12 pm by jizungu

    Your description (as usual) expertly captures what I, too, heard on Thursday. Yet we heard it so differently! I have taken a long time to warm to the Missa Solemnis. Past performances (Sawallisch in Philadelphia, Rilling with the CSO) left me intrigued. But on Thursday, I was deeply moved. I, too, appreciated that “bombast” was “firmly avoided” – and that’s why, unlike you, I did not miss the “bluster.” I agree that some of the tempi were slow; the opening pages of the Kyrie, in fact, made me worry that this was going to be a very long evening. Yet, 80 minutes later, I was still on the edge of my seat. Haitink’s ability to bring out the overall architecture made it gripping. And I suspect that his expansive approach partly accounts for his ability to bring out the gnarly details (that and the impeccable musicianship of the orchestra & the chorus). For me, this was especially evident in the Credo, which in Haitink’s hands took on the drama of a mystery play. (For example: the moment that the Son is incarnated: Gregorian chant in the chorus giving way to an eerie passage for solo flute, then the more human utterances of the quartet of soloists, and it all fading back to the continuing choral chant.) Where you heard taste and restraint, I also heard a probing account of the mysticism that often underlies the modernity of late Beethoven. But, especially in the case of the Missa, Beethoven’s iconoclasm is set off against a background of deeply rooted tradition.

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