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Beethoven: Missa Solemnis, Egmont Overture / Radu, Ama Deus Ensemble

Release Date: 04/21/2009 
Label:  Lyrichord   Catalog #: 6013   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Ludwig van Beethoven
Performer:  Jody KidwellEd BaraTimothy BentchSarah Davis
Conductor:  Valentin Radu
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Ama Deus Ensemble
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BEETHOVEN Egmont: Overture . Missa Solemnis Valentin Radu, cond; Sarah Davis (sop); Jody Kidwell (alt); Timothy Bentch (ten); Ed Bara (bs); Ama Deus Ensemble LYRICHORD LYRCD 6013 (78:50 Text and Translation) Live: Philadelphia 11/14/2008

"Like the Berlioz Requiem, most performances of the Missa Solemnis clock in at slightly over 80 minutes and require a Read more two-CD set. A more brisk performance can barely be squeezed onto a single CD. Consequently, when I received this single CD, and saw that the total timing of 78:50 included an 8:12 performance of the Egmont Overture as well, I rolled my eyes and prepared myself to be exposed to some piece of frantic insanity in a work that ranks among the dozen or so most dear to my heart. To my astonishment and delight, my expectations were confounded; though not an absolute first choice, this is a very able and distinguished rendition of considerable merit that surpasses many other recordings with far more renowned performers.

The Ama Deus Ensemble is a combination of the Camerata Ama Deus, an ensemble of 15 to 25 instrumentalists, and the Vox Renaissance Consort, a chorus of 16 to 20 singers, both founded by conductor Valentin Radu. For this live performance of the Missa Solemnis , the orchestra (using modern instruments) was augmented to 35 players and the chorus to 44 singers. For an ensemble of this nature to essay a work on this scale is audacious, to say the least—one might be tempted to say foolhardy. Yet it is not far in size from the forces at Beethoven’s own disposal, or those of many current period-instrument ensembles (John Eliot Gardiner used only 36 singers in his 1989 DG recording), and everything is executed with aplomb. With a keen ear for balance between all sections of instrumentalists and singers, and assistance from the relatively friendly confines of the intimate 400-seat Perelman Theater in Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center (the Philadelphia Orchestra plays in the center’s full-size Verizon Auditorium), Radu obtains the best of two worlds, drawing remarkably full and rich sounds from his forces and yet maintaining rhythmic litheness and textural (and textual) transparency. There are a few minor lapses in precision of ensemble, but nothing serious.

The timings of the five movements here are: Kyrie 8: 18, Gloria 16:24, Credo 17:03, Sanctus/Benedictus 14:42, and Agnus Dei 13: 59, or 70:26 total. This is consequently the second fastest traversal on disc, lagging behind only the David Zinman recording on Arte Nova, and slightly faster than Roger Norrington on Hänssler, Terje Kvam on Nimbus, and Gardiner on DG; the latter two performances, and Herreweghe’s more traditionally paced performance on Harmonia Mundi, are all performed on period instruments. Compared to typical modern interpretations, the adoption of faster tempi is most notable in the Kyrie and Credo, which are respectively about two and three minutes faster than the norm. For my part, the only points at which I would wish the performance to be slower are the opening and final sections of the Credo, and even so I find Radu’s tempi there to provide an intriguing rhythmic bounce at points. More importantly, there are none of the highly idiosyncratic and abrupt choices and shifts in tempi that have characterized some of Radu’s other recordings, such as in Handel’s Messiah . The overture is likewise given a good, if not exceptional, mainstream reading, free from all eccentricity. The recorded sound is on the reverberant side and a bit distant (a surprise, given the cozy venue); there is generous provision of tracking (16 cues for the five movements), and a basic booklet with text, translation, and brief notes on the performers and the music.

As a performance, if one is looking for a leaner and less weighty approach to this work, I would recommend this version over all the ones just cited. I do not share the admiration some critics have expressed for Zinman’s Beethoven recordings; their relentlessly manic tempi and rhythmic rigidity are merely Toscanini manqué . Norrington is typically superficial and affected, and the period-instrument performances all strike me as anemic. All of the preceding also are afflicted with inadequate soloists, whereas Radu has a much more solid if not ideal quartet. The star is tenor Timothy Bentch, who delivers one of the most beautiful and affecting interpretations of his part ever recorded; his entrance in the “Incarnatus” section of the Credo is a particular highlight. Bass Ed Bara is likewise effective and arresting, though his voice is not one of sepulchral blackness. Alto Jody Kidwell wields a potent alto, though the vibrato has just a tad of a machine-gun delivery to it. Soprano Sarah Davis is not sufficiently warmed up in the Kyrie, and some of her extreme high notes do not have an ideally centered vibrato or sweetness of tone, but otherwise she sings ably and the often cruel tessitura holds no terrors for her. (Radu courageously chooses to use Beethoven’s original solo quartet in the “Pleni sunt coeli” section of the Sanctus instead of giving it to the full chorus as is commonly done, and makes an unqualified success of it.) Concertmaster Thomas DiSarlo plays a heartfelt rendition of his lengthy violin solo in the Benedictus, though his intonation goes a bit awry toward the close. “Heartfelt” is, in fact, a good description of this performance as a whole; there is a palpable sense from all the performers of commitment to and belief in what they are doing, which elevates it above many more polished but less fervent competitors.

This is, then, a worthy and recommended alternative for anyone with money and space for another recording of Beethoven’s masterpiece, especially if one is looking for a view of it different from the more monumental norm."

FANFARE: James A. Altena
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Works on This Recording

Egmont, Op. 84: Overture by Ludwig van Beethoven
Conductor:  Valentin Radu
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Ama Deus Ensemble
Period: Classical 
Written: 1810; Vienna, Austria 
Missa solemnis in D major, Op. 123 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Performer:  Jody Kidwell (Mezzo Soprano), Ed Bara (Bass), Timothy Bentch (Tenor),
Sarah Davis (Soprano)
Conductor:  Valentin Radu
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Ama Deus Ensemble
Period: Classical 
Written: 1823; Vienna, Austria 

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