Beethoven – Missa solemnis (hr-Sinfonieorchester, Wiener Singverein, Orozco-Estrada)

Conducted by Andrés Orozco-Estrada, the hr-Sinfonieorchester (Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra) and the Wiener Singverein perform Ludwig van Beethoven’s Missa solemnis in D major, Op. 123. Soloists: Regine Hangler: soprano, Katrin Wundsam: Alto, Steve Davislim: Tenor, Hanno Müller-Brachmann: Bass. Recorded during the Rheingau Musik Festival 2016 at the Kloster Eberbach (Eberbach Abbey) on July 1st, 2016.

Missa solemnis is Latin for solemn mass, and is a genre of musical settings of the ordinary mass, which are festively scored and render the Latin text extensively, opposed to the more modest Missa brevis. In French, the genre is “Messe solennelle”. The terms came into use in the classical period.

When “Missa solemnis” is used as a name, without referring to a composer, Beethoven’s work is generally implied. The piece was composed from 1819 to 1823 and first performed on 7 April 1824 in St. Petersburg, Russia, under the auspices of Beethoven’s patron Prince Nikolai Galitzin (8 December/19 December 1794 – 22 October/3 November 1866), the Russian aristocrat).

Like most masses, the work is in five movements:

  1. Kyrie: Perhaps the most traditional movement, the Kyrie is in a traditional ABA’ structure, with stately choral writing in the first movement section and more contrapuntal voice leading in the Christe, which also introduces the four vocal soloists.
  2. Gloria: Quickly shifting textures and themes highlight each portion of the Gloria text, in a beginning to the movement that is almost encyclopedic in its exploration of 3/4 time. The movement ends with the first of the work’s two massive fugues, on the text “In gloria Dei patris. Amen”, leading into a recapitulation of the initial Gloria text and music.
  3. Credo: The movement opens with a chord sequence that will be used again in the movement to effect modulations. The Credo, like the Gloria, is an often disorienting, mad rush through the text. The poignant modal harmonies for the “Et incarnatus” yield to ever more expressive heights through the Crucifixus, and into a remarkable, a cappella setting of the “Et resurrexit” that is over almost before it has begun. Most notable about the movement, though, is the closing fugue on “Et vitam venturi saeculi” that includes one of the most difficult passages in the choral repertoire, when the subject returns at doubled tempo for a thrilling conclusion. The form of the Credo is divided into four parts: (I) allegro ma non troppo through “descendit de coelis” in B-flat; (II) “Et incarnatus est” through “Resurrexit” in D; (III) “Et ascendit” through the Credo recapitulation in F; (IV) fugue and coda “Et vitam venturi saeculi, amen” in B-flat.
  4. Sanctus: Up until the Benedictus of the Sanctus, the Missa solemnis is of fairly normal classical proportions. But then, after an orchestral preludio, a solo violin enters in its highest range—representing the Holy Spirit descending to earth—and begins the mass’s most transcendently beautiful music, in a remarkably long extension of the text.
  5. Agnus Dei: A setting of the plea “miserere nobis” (have mercy on us) that begins with the men’s voices alone in B minor yields, eventually, to a bright D major prayer “dona nobis pacem” (“grant us peace”) in a pastoral mode. After some fugal development, it is suddenly and dramatically interrupted by martial sounds (a convention in the 18th century, as in Haydn’s Missa in tempore belli), but after repeated pleas of “miserere”, eventually recovers and brings itself to a stately conclusion.

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