Lean Force Lifts Beethoven ‘Missa’ At Dresden Fest

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Members of the Dresden Festival Orchestra played 19th-century instruments in Beethoven's 'Missa Solemnis.'  (Photo by Oliver Killig)
Members of the Dresden Festival Orchestra played 19th-century instruments in Beethoven’s ‘Missa Solemnis.’
(Photo by Oliver Killig)
By Paul Hyde

DRESDEN – The late conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, much honored for his recordings of Beethoven, believed the Missa Solemnis to be the German composer’s greatest work.  A thrilling performance of this “solemn mass” at the Dresden Music Festival left at least one listener enthusiastically embracing Furtwängler’s claim. The June 8 performance of the work, with its affirmation of hope and peace, carried a particular poignancy in Dresden, a gem-like city reduced to rubble in the final months of World War II but restored, through international goodwill, to its former glory in the following decades.

Britain's Ivor Bolton conducted the Beethoven. (Ben Wright)
Britain’s Ivor Bolton conducted the Beethoven epic. (Ben Wright)

Written from 1819 to 1823, Missa Solemnis overlapped the composition of the Ninth Symphony, though the choral writing of the former is far more complex and, as its title emphasizes, solemn. The lean, glowing account of the Missa Solemnis, under the direction of British conductor Ivor Bolton at Dresden’s Semperoper, featured the smaller forces one occasionally encounters in performances of the work these days. The Balthasar Neumann Choir, a superb chorus of only 40, was supported by the 50-member Dresden Festival Orchestra, playing on instruments of the 19th century.

The slimmed-down forces, under Bolton’s astute direction, were an obvious asset, bringing considerable clarity and transparency to the contrapuntal tangle of Beethoven’s vocal lines. Bolton favored brisk tempos, conducting with both attention to detail and passionate urgency. At times, things even got a bit out of hand, as when the orchestra almost completely drowned out the chorus at the thunderous beginning of the Gloria and, passingly, during the big fugue of the Credo.

Such fleeting missteps were easy to forgive in the overall romantic sweep of the 75-minute performance. The work poses a challenge to any choral group’s stamina and agility, but the Balthasar Neumann Choir passed the test with professional ease, even with Bolton’s uncompromisingly fast tempos.

Finnish soprano Camilla Nylund was a radiant soloist. (Markus Hoffmann)
Finnish soprano Camilla Nylund was radiant. (Markus Hoffmann)

From the opening Kyrie, the chorus sounded warm and robust in the clear acoustic of the sumptuous cream-and-gold Semperoper. The choir generally displayed sufficient heft and muscle as well for the more forceful passages of the Gloria and Credo. Bolton offered bountiful dynamic contrast.

The softly intoned “Et Incarnatus,” depicting the mystery of the Incarnation (and the Holy Spirit descending in the trill of a solo flute), was beautifully rendered. The “Benedictus” shimmered in serenity. The concluding Agnus Dei was opulent, with Beethoven’s vivid trumpets of war and heartfelt pleas for peace suggesting that the threads of joy and grief are woven fine,  indeed.

Beyond the lush sheen and precision of articulation exhibited by the ensembles was a feeling of an orchestra and chorus giving it their all. (Violin soloist Kai Vogler, however, encountered some intonation problems in the Sanctus.)

Three of the four vocal soloists were excellent. Camilla Nylund was the radiant soprano, Elisabeth Kulman the marvelously rich-voiced mezzo, and Richard Croft a vibrant tenor. Yorck Felix Speer exhibited a burnished bass-baritone but was somewhat underpowered.

The three-week Dresden Music Festival is justly celebrated for world-class music-making and Bolton’s lucid, charged performance of the Missa Solemnis certainly rose to that high standard.

Paul Hyde is the Arts Writer for The Greenville (S.C.) News and Southeast Editor of Classical Voice North America. Follow Paul on Facebook and Twitter: @PaulHyde7.