Mostly BSO, Chorus rose to musical challenge

Beethoven: Despite some missteps, it's too bad some of the audience missed hearing all of the `Missa Solemnis' as they headed for the doors.

February 20, 1999|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Beethoven's "Missa Solemnis" is grouped together with certain of his other late works, such as the "Hammerklavier Sonata" and "Diabelli Variations" for piano and the "Grosse Fugue" for string quartet. Of such pieces it is either said that they are among "the greatest unplayable" or "the greatest boring" works in the canon.

Thursday evening's performance of this masterpiece in Meyerhoff Symphony Hall by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Chorus and guest conductor Jeffrey Tate was beset by a number of non-musical problems -- no less than three last-minute cancellations and substitutions among the soloists.

Even without such accidentals, however, one could hear why the "Missa Solemnis" is considered as unplayable as it is great: a chorus stretched by a number of unreasonable demands, including an uncomfortably high range and rhythmically awkward entrances; tests of the four soloists as unsparing as those in the Ninth Symphony; and several instrumental hurdles, chief among them an extended, fiendishly difficult, if angelically beautiful, violin solo in the "Benedictus."

Great but boring? The ranks of Thursday's audience were continually slimmed by a persistent trickle of early exits, and many of those remaining slept for much of the music's 80-minute span.

It may not have helped matters that Tate's approach to this piece was unremittingly devotional. Certain conductors -- Arturo Toscanini, George Szell and the late

Robert Shaw (to whose memory the BSO devoted the performance) -- managed to bring a quasi-operatic excitement to this music.

In their readings, for example, Beethoven's "Credo" rocked with almost Verdian vigor; such was not the case in Tate's deliberate, considered interpretation. But this conductor is no lightweight, and his sincere, intelligent reading exuded enough granitic strength to cast a spell.

The orchestra acquitted itself well. If concertmaster Herbert Greenberg's solo in the "Benedictus" was not always in tune, few performances of this difficult music ever are. Some listeners may have questioned Greenberg's romantic approach to the music, but the violinist's intense and expressive playing offered rewards of its own.

Except for one or two unsteady entrances, the chorus met the challenges of its challenging music. Carmen Pelton was a meltingly beautiful soprano soloist; Nancy Maultsby was a firm, characterful mezzo; Nathan Berg was a warm, expressive bass; and Jon Garrison was a musical, if somewhat strained, tenor.

Pub Date: 2/20/99

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