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Beethoven: Missa Solemnis / Thielemann, Stoyanova, Garanca, Schade, Selig

Beethoven / Thielemann / Skd / Garanca / Selig
Release Date: 03/29/2011 
Label:  C Major   Catalog #: 705408  
Composer:  Ludwig van Beethoven
Performer:  Krassimira StoyanovaElina GarancaFranz-Josef SeligMichael Schade
Conductor:  Christian Thielemann
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Staatskapelle DresdenDresden State Opera Chorus
Number of Discs: 1 
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BEETHOVEN Missa Solemnis Christian Thielemann, cond; Krassimira Stoyanova (sop); Elina Garan?a (mez); Michael Schade (ten); Franz Josef-Selig (bass); Dresden St Op Ch; Staatskapelle Dresden C MAJOR 705408 (DVD); 705504 (Blu-ray: 87:34) Live: Semperoper, Dresden 02/13/2010

Read more /> At a time when Dresden, that Baroque and Rococo gem, was full of Berlin’s refugees and the war for us was pretty much good as won, our firebombing of Dresden in February 1945 was not one of Britain and America’s finest hours. Whatever the much-disputed strategic reason was, it still feels, to someone of my generation, like someone stamping unnecessarily on a Fabergé egg. For the U.K., of course, it was a kind of payback for the Germans’ totalling of the pretty medieval city Coventry in 1940. Dresden and Coventry are twinned now, both scarred not so much by the bombing as by the swift, concrete-fixated rebuilding (British architects were just as cross-eyed and short-sighted as East German ones). Since reunification, huge investment and returning industry have brought Dresden back to life, as one by one the historic buildings are being restored so that, in time, it may regain its prewar name of the Jewel Box. Even while part of East Germany, Dresden managed to retain some of its cultural standards, something that has eluded unemployment-ridden Coventry. Although Benjamin Britten premièred his War Requiem there, Coventry doesn’t have any living cultural flagship. In short, it never had anything like the Dresden Staatskapelle, an orchestra that even in the world of globalized blandness, has managed to retain its unmistakeable, rarefied sound.

I vaguely knew about Dresden’s memorial concerts held each year in February. What is startling about watching one for the first time is the complete lack of applause before and after the concert. Judging by the political, elite-looking audience (Mikhail Gorbachev, among others, is there), it feels like a very international, ambassadorial act of mourning. Last year, 2010, was an especially pertinent year for the concert, being not just the 65th anniversary of the bombing but also the 25th of the Semperoper’s reopening. Aside from the War Requiem , I doubt there could be a better choice here than Beethoven’s solemn mass. A strange, awkward masterpiece, it contrasts its lyrical, slow-building climaxes with frenzied joyous moments, culminating in a surprisingly forward-looking, positive conclusion.

Still, in this paean to modern, forward-thinking Germany, I do have to suppress a scoff as Christian Thielemann, with his 1930s haircut, enters the stage. Listening to him, also, is like denying the period-instrument movement ever existed, but having just listened to a chunk of his formidably rich but very calculated Beethoven Symphony cycle, I find Thielemann here a lot warmer and less inclined to show off, both physically and musically. Gone is his cattle prod of a baton (even Felix Weingartner would have thought it a bit much) and he instead conducts the work in a series of warm, embracing hand gestures. He really is a very good choral conductor (not always the case with the megastar conductors), giving the singers and the orchestra equal attention without spoonfeeding them.

Predictably with Thielemann, this is a very grand, smoothly contoured Missa Solemnis that often feels slower than it actually is, with the bass line especially flat-footed. In fact often he races through certain moments, although he then likes applying the brakes for big, melodic statements, or just before an entry for soloists, like in the Credo, where he then suddenly speeds up. Although not always convincing, his tempo fluctuations generally work here without destroying the overall structure, not an easy feat in a work that, unusually for Beethoven, doesn’t develop its themes for very long before changing its mind. For all his formidable control, there is a singing, elastic element to the playing, and without Thielemann wielding his baton, I have less of a sense of him manipulating every single bar.

The chorus is very good, matching the orchestra for its polish, although this is not a performance with which to savor individual layers and voices. Clarity of diction, too, takes second place to the overall texture. This is Beethoven as a single, machine-drilled unit, although this doesn’t stop the listener from enjoying the quality of individual players. The soloists, too, are generally excellent, even by the standards of the starry studio rivals. The Canadian tenor Michael Schade, often rather stiff and dry in timbre, sings here with a really clean, finely etched line. He is not as refulgent as, say, Fritz Wunderlich or Plácido Domingo, but he rides the climaxes very well and is sensitive in ensembles. Franz Josef-Selig doesn’t make much of an impression until the Agnus Dei, where finally his warm if cautious bass starts to shine, but the real stars are the women. Slightly detached at first, Elina Garan?a’s peachy, luminous mezzo is a delight and contrasts beautifully with Krassimira Stoyanova’s gleaming, lyric soprano. Stoyanova, like Julia Varady, has one of those extraordinarily versatile voices that for all its lyricism contains a blade of steel, just ideal for cutting through Beethoven’s thick textures. We all have particular favorites, but I honestly can’t think of a better team than here.

All in all, this holds up well as a performance as well as a memorial concert. Picture and sound are predictably excellent, and although very conventionally edited, Michael Beyer’s direction wisely keeps its attention on the musicians, saving any shots of the “important” audience until the end. The airy, spacious acoustic of the Semperoper has been faithfully rendered, which, although it doesn’t sound thrilling, does stay in keeping with Thielemann’s blended textures. So is this the best Missa Solemnis ? Well, on DVD I think it might be, although anyone seeking a period-instrument reading will have already stopped reading. I generally like my Beethoven to be rougher and lighter on its feet, so I still want to keep Leonard Bernstein’s (another undervalued choral conductor) Concertgebouw version, definitely more rapt and exciting, although, Kurt Moll’s magnificent bass aside, his soloists are not as good as Thielemann’s. Over on YouTube, there’s a lovely, stately account from Wolfgang Sawallisch at the Vatican in 1970 with a lavish quartet of voices: Ingrid Bjoner, Christa Ludwig, and two wet-behind-the-ears unknowns, Plácido Domingo and Kurt Moll! That’s just begging to be remastered and released commercially, but until then, I think Thielemann makes a fine first choice.

FANFARE: Barnaby Rayfield

Subtitles: German, English, French, Spanish, Japanese
Booklet: English, German, French
No. of Discs: 1
Run time: 90 minutes
Disc Format: DVD 9
Picture: NTSC, 16:9
Audio: PCM Stereo, PCM 5.1
Region Code: 0 (worldwide)
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Works on This Recording

Missa solemnis in D major, Op. 123 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Performer:  Krassimira Stoyanova (Soprano), Elina Garanca (Mezzo Soprano), Franz-Josef Selig (Bass),
Michael Schade (Tenor)
Conductor:  Christian Thielemann
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Staatskapelle Dresden,  Dresden State Opera Chorus
Period: Classical 
Written: 1823; Vienna, Austria 

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