I went to see the Missa Solemnis by Beethoven at the Barbican on Tuesday. This was my second try. I went on Sunday, too, but arrived just as the downbeat could be heard through the doors, and they wouldn’t let me in. The work is too short for an intermission. It was raining and dreadful that night. The Barbican tube station was closed. Even the San Francisco Opera isn’t that rough. I have arrived late and been allowed to stand in the back. Sigh. I treated myself to a cab ride back. I was interested enough to try again.
The Barbican is an odd place in the center of a forest of high rise apartments. The cab driver said thousands of people lived there, but the streets are barren and empty, with no people, no shops, no restaurants, just cold buildings. There is a yellow line on the pavement leading you from the tube station to the theater complex. The confusion doesn’t stop there. Once inside there are ramps leading up and down with many dead ends. To reach the lift requires going outside. There are two ticket places on two different levels. Once you are inside the hall it’s actually quite symmetrical and organized, with good sight lines and acoustics. My girls have both sung here this year and have their pictures in the lobby.
There were odd statements in the program notes. It called this an unfamiliar text, this most composed of all texts. Though I have never studied Latin and my own religious background is quite different, I know what they are saying most of the time because I have sung the same texts in Latin and English, in chant, in both Catholic and Episcopal services, in concerts, in all imaginable guises, and find them part of my mental landscape. In a secular world they are unknown.
This is what is called a symphonic mass, a form invented by Haydn, I think, where the composer moves from the alternating chorus movement with aria movement format of the Baroque to one where the vocal soloists sing in the same movements as the chorus and orchestra. Mozart composed works in both styles. Beethoven doesn't break up the sections and even does the entire credo as a single movement.
Robert Shaw had an arrangement of the Bach B minor Mass where he tried to turn it into a symphonic mass by taking some of the choral passages and assigning them to soloists. I don’t think there is any authenticity to this, but it changed the perceived texture considerably. The Messe in H Moll was an abstraction for Bach like Die Kunst der Fuge. I digress.
In a real sung mass they work quickly through the wordy parts. Beethoven will often get through the entire text before turning back to develop the themes and words that most interest him. He repeats much like in a symphony. His treatment is unusual.
The program notes focused on what each section would have meant to Beethoven, which of course we don’t know. I prefer not to speculate. Beethoven considered this his greatest work, but there are weak sections. He does fairly well with the long text of the credo. He emphasized “Et vitam ventura saeculi,” the life of the world to come, by repeating it several times.
In a requiem mass it is possible to choose ones ending. The composer can end loud with the repeat of the dies irae theme or go soft like Faure with the text at the graveside. In a true mass it ends with “grant us peace,” the text immediately before communion. It is a soft ending and robs Beethoven of his big finish. As a dramatic arc, the ninth symphony works better. The dramatic peak of the Missa Solemnis is in the Gloria, a thrilling piece. The intensity is overwhelming.
There should always be a special bow for the sopranos of the chorus in this piece for they have shouted at the tops of their voices for two solid hours. Beethoven shows no mercy. He shows more mercy to the soloists who don't have to sing that much. In this performance there was a quiet intensity to their work: soprano Soile Isokoski, alto Sara Mingardo, tenor Pavol Breslik and bass Alistair Miles who was a replacement. It was a fine performance, conducted by Colin Davis, and starring the London Symphony Orchestra and chorus. I'm glad I went back.