sat 20/07/2024

Missa solemnis, BBCSO, Runnicles, Barbican review - affirmation in the face of adversity | reviews, news & interviews

Missa solemnis, BBCSO, Runnicles, Barbican review - affirmation in the face of adversity

Missa solemnis, BBCSO, Runnicles, Barbican review - affirmation in the face of adversity

Beethoven’s supreme challenge to all answered with conviction

From earth to heaven, from man to God: Donald Runnicles and the BBCSO and Chorus in Beethoven's final religious testamentAll images © Mark Allan/BBCSO

The tough, knotty writing of the Missa solemnis – its “unrelenting integrity”, Donald Runnicles said in a pre-concert interview – was addressed unflinchingly last night by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. They have a distinguished history with the piece, having given memorable Proms performances with Sir Colin Davis and Bernard Haitink – and remembered now by a hissy tape transfer, Pierre Boulez to open the 1972 season.

However, the burden of history and reputation was shaken off last night. Not with the iconoclastic severity or stripped-back sonorities redolent of period-instrument performances, but rather a muscular energy that made a virtue of difficulty – in playing, singing and listening – and took account of doubt along the way while never anachronistically infected by it. Sharing an affirmative spirit with the landmark pieces by significant successors such as Janáček, Tippett and Stockhausen, this was a Missa that said yes.

One of the miracles of the Missa solemnis is its synthesis of music past, present and future: Palestrina in the immaculate polyphony of the Sanctus, Verdi in the burning vocal quartets of the outer movements, Schoenberg’s Moses in the swirling pleas for mercy at the heart of the Gloria. Yet the crisp attack of the three-quarter-strength BBCSO, the contained energy of the brass contributions, the plangent woodwind timbres and, most of all, the thrilling sweep of the choral contribution, ensured that Beethoven never sounded like anyone other than himself – and specifically himself in the early 1820s, learning from his contemporary experience in writing the Ninth Symphony to make a more agile interaction between and within orchestral and choral forces while developing the language of assertive conflict that finds its more natural home – to modern ears – in the late string quartets. From left to right: Roderick Williams, Thomas Atkins, Christine Rice and Elizabeth Llewelyn in Beethoven's Missa solemnisAt an hour and a quarter, Runnicles’ pacing felt judicious, yet there was nothing middle-of the-road about the exuberant declarations of belief to open the Gloria and Credo, the terrific momentum of their closing fugues, the rapture of the Praeludium or the spiritual crises of the Agnus dei. On another night, in a less confined acoustic, he might have found more repose in the Benedictus, cultivated more quiet playing and singing elsewhere too. Still, leader Igor Yusefovich found space to cast a spell akin to the most serene stretches of the Violin Concerto in his long solo, and by standing he drew the loveliest moment of the evening from the solo winds, eloquent and elevated in expression on their own terms, especially clarinettist Richard Hosford.

The vocal quartet (pictured above) made a well-contrasted team: fresh from her triumph in ENO’s Luisa Miller, Elizabeth Llewellyn radiant as well as reassuringly secure on the top line, accentuating the heavenward gaze of Beethoven’s writing like the performance as a whole; mezzo-soprano Christine Rice, a presence of more down-to-earth pathos, especially affecting in the Agnus; the keen cutting edge of Thomas Atkins’ tenor always glinting through the texture; and Roderick Williams, more reserved or at least restrained compared to his colleagues but imparting a gravity and urgency to the opening of the Agnus that, again, felt true both to the piece and to its realisation here.


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