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Beethoven: Missa Solemnis / Eschenbach, London Philharmonic

Beethoven / Lpo / Eschenbach / Schwanewilms
Release Date: 04/24/2012 
Label:  Lpo   Catalog #: 61  
Composer:  Ludwig van Beethoven
Performer:  Dietrich HenschelAnnette JahnsNikolai SchukoffAnne Schwanewilms
Conductor:  Christoph Eschenbach
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Philharmonic OrchestraLondon Philharmonic Chorus
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BEETHOVEN Missa Solemnis Christoph Eschenbach, cond; Anne Schwanewilms (sop); Annette Jahns (mez); Nikolai Schukoff (ten); Dietrich Henschel (bs); London PO & Ch LPO 0061 (80:22 Text and Translation) Live: London 10/18/2008

In Fanfare 34:1, in a review of a Tchaikovsky album by the Philadelphia Orchestra, I had occasion to lament the virtually forced departure of its music director, Christoph Eschenbach. Given the turbulence the orchestra has gone Read more through since then—only yesterday, as I write, it officially emerged from bankruptcy proceedings—Eschenbach may have found his exit (and subsequent soft landing in Washington, D.C., with the National Symphony) a blessing in disguise. Be that as it may, this wonderful performance of the Missa Solemnis gives renewed occasion to consider and regret what Philadelphia has lost.

Somewhat unusually, the interpretation offered here sets contemplative devotion at its core; it partakes more of a liturgical act than a concert performance, and the audience is utterly noiseless. Eschenbach accomplishes this partly by emphasizing lyrical elements over dramatic ones, and by a balance of orchestral sound that gives somewhat greater prominence to woodwind instruments (and correspondingly less to the brass) relative to the strings than is the norm. By these means, and a similar treatment of the choir (which sings superbly throughout), Eschenbach attains an often almost chamber-music-like translucence and delicacy, despite the large forces involved. The overall results may be too soft-grained for some; but while I like a monumental, heaven-storming rendition of this work as much as anyone else, I find that in the right hands (such as Eschenbach’s) this approach also works exceedingly well. The one other performance of this piece I know that takes a similar interpretive tack and succeeds is the miraculous 1957 account with Carl Schuricht leading the Hamburg NDR Symphony, St. Hedwig’s Cathedral Choir of Berlin, and solo quartet of Maria Stader, Elsa Cavelti, Ernst Haefliger, and Heinz Rehfuss. (The Archiphon set is out of print, but it is available as an MP3 download. If you can find a copy, snap it up without delay.)

I do have a few minor reservations. The four soloists are generally quite good, if not highly distinctive. As one would expect, Anne Schwanewilms soars sweetly and without strain. Annette Jahns, a name new to me, has exactly the kind of potent alto needed for her role to have its maximum effect. I have found Dietrich Henschel to be an on-again, off-again singer, but here he is on best behavior. Nikolai Schukoff is not quite on the same level as his three colleagues; he has something of that throaty quality that I find objectionable in German tenors such as Peter Schreier and Christoph Elsner, and an occasional note does not have its vibrato quite centered. Concertmaster Pieter Schoeman plays well in the Sanctus, but does not quite achieve the sublime sweetness of repose attained by his greatest rivals. As in so many other performances, the Agnus Dei loses momentum and dramatic tension along the way, though unlike some it does not go completely belly-up and ruin the entire performance. Overall, I would still rank this among the top 10 recordings of this piece available, and place it alongside the BMG recording with Colin Davis and the Bavarian Radio Symphony and Chorus as one of the two best digital versions available. Among my other favorite versions:

Toscanini’s 1935 New York Philharmonic and 1939 BBC Symphony accounts (the former in extremely poor sound, though much improved on the recent Immortal Performances release);

Bruno Walter’s staggeringly great 1949 New York Philharmonic broadcast (also in limited sound); the aforementioned 1957 Carl Schuricht performance;

Leonard Bernstein’s first recording from 1962, with the New York Philharmonic (the contours of which closely follow Walter’s performance);

Herbert von Karajan’s live 1966 performance with the Berlin Philharmonic (inferior in sound to the studio recording with the identical forces, but much superior as a performance);

Karajan’s live 1979 Berlin Philharmonic performance on DVD (where he finally set right so many things he did wrong in his four studio recordings); the aforementioned Colin Davis recording (once also available on VHS tape).

While not a desert-island choice for the work, this recording is nonetheless worthy to join this distinguished field, and is warmly recommended.

FANFARE: James A. Altena
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Works on This Recording

Missa solemnis in D major, Op. 123 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Performer:  Dietrich Henschel (Baritone), Annette Jahns (Mezzo Soprano), Nikolai Schukoff (Tenor),
Anne Schwanewilms (Soprano)
Conductor:  Christoph Eschenbach
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Philharmonic Orchestra,  London Philharmonic Chorus
Period: Classical 
Written: 1823; Vienna, Austria 

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