in: Reviews

November 6, 2011

Dellal Shines in Masterworks’ Missa Solemnis

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Under the baton of their music director Steven Karidoyanes, the estimable Masterworks Chorale gave a rousing performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis on November 4 at Sanders Theater. During the fifty-three-year tenure (1952-2005) of its music director Allen Lannom, Missa Solemnis was performed six times, so it is likely that many of the choristers had performed this work under him as well. (His last performance was in 1999).  Clearly, this is a work dear to this chorus, and it showed.

In fact, Missa Solemnis is performed regularly throughout the Boston area; the Boston Symphony will perform it in late February in Boston and at Carnegie Hall. Familiarity does not obviate the immense difficulties of singing this work. Beethoven was a less-than-stellar choral composer, and fast tempi in the Gloria and the Credo, as was the case on Friday evening, do not help the situation. The chorus was forced to sing at an often breakneck speed, making it difficult to hear the words.  This is not a chorus-friendly work.

While Missa Solemnis is unquestionably one of the greatest choral masterworks, it also features extraordinary instrumental writing used to illuminate the text (much as Bach does in the B-minor Mass). The forty-piece orchestra was very good, although it seemed, with one exception, that they were all new to the Masterworks Chorale, whom I hear regularly.  The most unusual writing features a solo violin in the Benedictus. The concertmaster, Sonja Larson, stood, pouring out beautiful lines in the violin’s high register, accompanied first by trombones, trumpets, and timpani, then accompanying the soloists, then the chorus. She stayed perfectly poised and in tune in the violin’s stratosphere, matching the soaring range of the excellent soprano Barbara Kilduff during the rest of the piece. Brava to Larson! Another notable instrumental moment was the Praeludium in which the divided violas and cellos set the stage for the heavenly descent of flute and solo violin leading to the Benedictus. All played very nicely.

All four soloists were very good indeed, including tenor Charles Blandy and baritone Dana Whiteside. But for me, the evening’s highlights occurred whenever mezzo-soprano Pamela Dellal sung, as if in prayer. Her voice projected the emotional and religious intensity of the music and contributed much towards this Missa Solemnis being as rich a performance as it was.

Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.

2 Comments

  1. This review is punctuated by unsubstantiated and, in my view, contradictory statements. For example, “Beethoven was a less-than-stellar choral composer”. Oh really? How does that equate with the other totally subjective statement “Missa Solemnis is unquestionably one of the greatest choral masterworks”?  Well, according to the reviewer then, obviously the less-than-stellar Beethoven must have had an uncharacteristic flash of inspiration with this piece. Surely reviewers can do better than try to make these sort of platitudinous generalizations and pass them off as fact with which everyone agrees. Continuing then in the spirit that  assertions made without proof may be dismissed without proof, I would submit the following.  Beethoven is a God amongst composers. He decided to write a setting of the mass text, and tried his hardest to make it the greatest setting of the mass ever produced. He tried too hard. It is truly awful. Unsingable, badly orchestrated, and somewhere in the same qualitative ballpark as Wellington’s Battle Symphony. When he wrote it, instead of just being Beethoven he attempted to make Beethovenian statements instead of just being himself. When he finished it, he got back to work,  just being Beethoven, and wrote the greatest string quartets there will ever be. In my opinion, the last word on music.

    Comment by P Johnson — November 6, 2011 at 3:34 pm

  2. I too disagree with Susan Miron that “Beethoven was a less-than-stellar choral composer,” but she did make a very notable observation: that almost the entire orchestra is different from last year. From my understanding, it seems that Karidoyanes decided to summarily fire the superb players of his orchestra, despite the fact that many have served the Masterworks Chorale with distinction and loyalty for decades. In my opinion, this is bad form and bad musical judgment. I was once a great fan of the Masterworks Chorale, but I have stopped attending since Karidoyanes became conductor, because I took no enjoyment in watching him ruin a wonderful organization with his poor programming and performances. The fact that audience attendance has dropped off so much from the full-house days of years past seems to tell me that I am not alone in feeling this way. 

    Comment by e.r.staunt — November 8, 2011 at 10:59 am

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