An extremely close second best to the Karajan performance
As was said in my review for the 1996 DVD performance, 'Missa Solemnis' is one of Beethoven's masterpieces, not just of his later work but overall as well. It is also one of the most awe-inspiring, though also one of the most difficult all round, choral works, and is a powerful, moving achievement when done right.
This performance, conducted by Leonard Bernstein and featuring soloists Edda Moser, Hanna Schwarz, Rene Kollo and Kurt Moll, certainly is done right. Karajan's is personal first choice of the DVD competition, but Bernstein is an extremely close second best and actually in terms of overall standard is pretty much on the same level. This said, all the DVDs of 'Missa Solemnis' are good and worth watching, the 1996 performance fares least due to too busy video directing and pointless and distracting constantly changing colour filtering but is beautifully done with few debits and Gilbert Levine suffers from a far too lightweight and strained tenor section and slightly bland conducting but has plenty to recommend at the same time.
Back to this performance, it is beautifully filmed as ever by Humphrey Burton, sometimes it's cinematically expansive, at other points it's sympathetic and intimate. The venue is lovely and inviting and the lighting is never dull or too fancy, never monotonous but at least there is no distracting colour filtering. The performance is phenomenal musically. The orchestra play beautifully and powerfully, the dramatic power and poignant emotion always present and never let go. It was so lovely too to hear parts that don't always come through enough but come through here to thrilling effect, the timpani crescendo in the "Quonium" is magnificent and rarely has been done better. The violin solo in the "Benedictus" and "Sanctus" is exquisitely played, such beautiful tone and most of all feeling.
In 'Missa Solemnis' the chorus part is a huge sing and is no easy picnic, Beethoven in general is a very heavy sing. The chorus do not sound taxed at all. There are so many colours in their sound, starting off a little less richly and somewhat straight on top in the "Kyrie", considering the emotional nature of the movement it actually worked and seemed to me a deliberate choice, but from the "Gloria" their sound is incredibly rich. There is a real genuine heart-breaking intensity in the "Kyrie" and "Agnus Dei", but they are exciting fiery in the "Gloria" too, the fugue is brilliantly done here and rarely has the start of the movement have so much ferocious attack and thrilling violence. The "Credo" is contrastingly tranquil and melancholic.
Leonard Bernstein's conducting gets so much musically, interpretively and dramatically from the orchestra, soloists and chorus. His tempos are just right, never sounding too rushed and too indulgent (like he has been criticised for in his latter years). He looks like he's really into the music, definitely not as subtle as Karajan on the podium (Bernstein was pretty eccentric but quite fun to watch actually), and ensures that the feeling and intensity comes through as well as the meaning, with an ideal balance of the serious and the solemn. His interpretation is also somewhat more spiritual than some other performances of 'Missa Solemnis', it's interesting and it works.
Edda Moser's voice is one of real creaminess and gleaming beauty, personally didn't detect any edge or pressure. She conveys the poignancy very well, the "Kyrie" is particularly deeply felt. Hanna Schwarz is the soloist this reviewer is least familiar with, and she is definitely a performer she wants to see more of with a rich generous tone and a dignified and subtle stage presence. Rene Kollo gives some of his most nuanced and less strained singing (back when he was singing stuff that he was suited for and not taking on roles that were too heavy for him), and he sounds like he is engaged with the text and very confident. Kurt Moll as always sings firmly and with a volcanic but warm, noble but imposing voice that allowed him to have such versatility on the operatic stage. He is arresting to watch, and his big solo in "Agnus Dei" is one of the finest for that movement personally heard.
Overall, words cannot describe how truly good this performance of a choral masterwork was. While all the 'Missa Solemnis' performances are well worth watching, it is the Karajan and Bernstein DVDs that are the absolute must haves. 10/10 Bethany Cox
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