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.