'Missa' comes from the heart in superb concert

March 11, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

One of the most often-quoted remarks in the history of music is the message Beethoven inscribed at the top of his score of his "Missa Solemnis": "From the heart -- may it go to the heart."

There's never been any question about the heartfelt sincerity of the composer's great work -- which was performed last night in Meyerhoff Hall by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Chorus -- but one can question its success in reaching the hearts of listeners.

Despite its reputation as one of Beethoven's two greatest large-scale symphonic works, the "Mass in D" is programmed less frequently than the Ninth Symphony or -- to choose another example from the sacred repertory -- the "Requiem" of Verdi. And it's indisputable that Beethoven's "Missa Solemnis" is not a particularly popular work. Meyerhoff Hall was only a little more than two-thirds filled last night and members of the audience trailed out discreetly during last night's excellent performance by guest conductor Gunther Herbig.

There are critics who suggest that the greatest of the composer's two Masses has structural defects -- that its front-loaded first half, which contains two tremendous climaxes in the "Gloria" and "Credo," is followed by an anti-climactic second half. It's as if the mightiest and most viscerally exciting of the composer's symphonies were suddenly followed by the disembodied beauty of the last movements of the C-sharp Minor String Quartet.

Such an objection, however, is probably based on the expectation of a symphonic structure that is proscribed by the Mass' liturgical nature. The "Missa Solemnis" is rarely performed ZTC in a liturgical setting and was never performed as such during the composer's lifetime. But even though Beethoven missed his deadline by three years, the "Missa Solemnis" was composed for such a setting -- the installment of his friend, Archduke Rudolf of Austria, as Archbishop of Olmutz.

The Mass by its nature is a collection of disparate pieces: while the "Kyrie" and "Gloria" are sung together over the course of the service, the "Credo" and the "Sanctus" are separated from the first two, and from each other, by considerable space of time. While it has become an oratorio of sorts, the composer did not set out to write one. The structure of the "Missa Solemnis" -- its first half dealing heroically with the matters of Scripture, preaching and prayer and its second treating poignantly that of the transcendance inherent in the nature of the sacrament of communion -- is superb.

Superb is also the word that can be used to characterize most of Herbig's performance. Almost everything this conductor performs in the pieces of the central European repertory that are closest to him show solid understanding of the music at hand, an ability to keep the tension taut and enough spontaneity to keep a listener on edge.

The playing of the orchestra -- except for an intentionally off-the-mark reading of the great violin solo in the "Benedictus" -- was fine as was the chorus in this unusually demanding work.

There were flaws. Three of the soloists -- mezzo-soprano Jard van Nes, tenor Michael Schade and baritone Gary Relyea -- sang beautifully together. But although Camellia Johnson has a magnificent voice, the size of her huge soprano sometimes tended to dwarf the voices of the other singers in ensembles, and she sounded as if she wished she were across the street at

the Lyric, preparing to sing Verdi.

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