Beethoven: Missa Solemnis / Steinberg, Harper, Hamari, Eliasson

Release Date: 2/28/2012
Label: ICA Classics
Catalog Number: ICAC5054
Conductor: William Steinberg
Number of Discs: 1

Physical Format:

In Stock
Notes and Editorial Reviews

BEETHOVEN Missa Solemnis William Steinberg, cond; Heather Harper (sop); Julia Hamari (ms); Sven Olof Eliasson (tenor); Peter Meven (bs); Cologne Broadcasting O & Ch ICA 5054 (74:33) Live: Cologne 6/15/1973

William Steinberg, whose abilities as a Beethoven conductor were highly appreciated by musicians if not always by the general public (I recall seeing his set of Beethoven symphonies in the homes of more professional musicians than the early Karajan set), did not perform the Missa Solemnis as often as his mentors, Otto Klemperer and Arturo Toscanini. Annotator Donald Rosenberg, in fact, recalls that he only conducted it twice in Pittsburgh, once in 1954 as that orchestra’s music director, again in 1975 as a guest. This Cologne performance and broadcast from 1973, then, fills a niche in the Steinberg discography (this is its first CD release). If Rosenberg’s notes are any indication, this performance is held in almost as high esteem by musicians as his Beethoven symphonies.

To a certain extent, Steinberg’s musical aesthetic synthesized the features of Klemperer and Toscanini (who were also good friends and colleagues). That is to say, Steinberg applied the rigorous structural approach of both conductors to his performances, and combined the lyrical warmth of the first with the rhythmic acuity and building of tension of the other. Comparing the timings on this recording to Toscanini’s two NBC performances, however, reveals interesting disparities. Toscanini’s 1940 tempos were rather relaxed, particularly in the opening Kyrie, which took 10:39. His other tempos then were 16:53 for the Gloria, 18:15 for the Credo, 17:39 for the Sanctus, and 15:39 for the Agnus Dei, and these timings do not altogether reflect the incredibly broad, sweeping phrasing he employed at that time, nor the almost seamless legato of his vocal quartet, surely the finest on a Missa in recording history: Zinka Milanov, Bruna Castagna, Jussi Björling, and Alexander Kipnis. In his 1953 recording, Toscanini’s tempos were all rather faster: Kyrie, 9:02; Gloria, 16:01; Credo, 17:57; Sanctus–Benedictus, 16:31; and Agnus Dei, 14:35. Yet in most instances, Steinberg is even faster, the exceptions being the Gloria, which comes in at 17:08 (closer to Toscanini in 1940), and the Credo at 19:12. He takes the Kyrie at the astoundingly fast clip of 8:09 (almost a full minute faster than Toscanini in 1954!), the Sanctus–Benedictus at 14:58, and the Agnus Dei at 15:03. Yet because Steinberg believed in a long line and did not hammer the rhythms with Toscanini’s force, the actual listening experience is smoother, less angular in the articulation of the string and wind passages.

Moreover, the wonderfully roomy sonics of the Cologne broadcasting studio imparts a warmth to Steinberg’s Missa that one can glean only in the 1940 Toscanini performance. The Italian conductor’s 1953 recording is very tightly miked, so much so that it is only in the latter-day “ambient” release by Pristine Classical that it sounds like a normal high-fidelity recording. This is especially welcome in the huge orchestral-choral climaxes that Beethoven calls for, even more massive and powerful than some of those in the Ninth Symphony. Steinberg’s slightly more relaxed tempos in the Gloria and Credo also have the advantage of allowing him to articulate the fugal passages with the same clarity as Toscanini, and the singers sound slightly less breathless. The more relaxed pace also allows Steinberg to float certain passages almost as Toscanini did in 1940: note, particularly, the “Et incarnates est” in the midst of the Credo.

I am also highly impressed with the vocal quartet, of which Heather Harper and Julia Hamari are the most famous names. Both women sing gloriously, and certainly live up to their reputations (I’m starting to think that Harper might have been the greatest all-around soprano of the 20th century—she could sing anything from Handel to Britten, with all stops in between), but tenor Sven Olof Eliasson is also very impressive, and Peter Meven has a rich, dark German bass voice that sounds almost like a junior Martti Talvela.

If you own both Toscanini performances discussed above, particularly the Pristine pressing of the 1953 version, you may not feel the need to acquire this recording, but I find Steinberg’s approach to the Missa unique and very moving as a listening experience. I also think you may want this for its more sumptuous stereo sonics (quite impressive for a 1973 broadcast), Steinberg’s very individual phrasing of certain passages, and one of the finest vocal quartets on any stereo version of this piece. I, for one, love this recording.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
Works on This Recording
1. Missa solemnis in D major, Op. 123 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Conductor: William Steinberg
Period: Classical
Written: 1823 ; Vienna, Austria
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