There can be, I suspect, no such thing as a definitive performance of the Missa Solemnis. Beethoven's examination of the relationship between God's grandeur and erring humanity is so colossal that no single interpretation can encompass its meaning and emotional resonances in their entirety. Its very complexity, however, has inspired musicians to give of their best, and this shattering performance, with Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and the Netherlands Radio Choir, ranked among the greatest I have heard.
Harnoncourt's approach, in essence, was measured and devotional. The sense throughout was of the steady unfolding of an immense ceremony, during the course of which emotion was contained within the formality of ritual. Harnoncourt's canny way with speeds gave us time and space to contemplate sound and meaning: most conductors aspire to whirling elation at Et Resurrexit in the Credo, though Harnoncourt held back, allowing us to ponder the enormous significance of what we were hearing. The wonder of the Sanctus was humbling, but throughout we were acutely conscious of the anguish, as well as the grace.
Miserere (have mercy) is the most frequently used word in the work, its implications finally forced home in the Agnus Dei as the sound of warring humanity intruded on the fading beatific vision.
When it was over, Harnoncourt was presented with the Royal Philharmonic Society gold medal. "Without a composer and wonderful musicians, I am a speck of dust," he said in his acceptance speech. And indeed, none of it would have worked without performers attuned to his vision. The orchestral sound was austere yet beautiful, the choral singing wonderfully articulate with every line of those big fugues perfectly clear. And the soloists – Marlis Petersen, Elisabeth Kulman, Werner Güra and Gerald Finley – were immaculate.
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