On the first page of his Missa Solemnis Beethoven wrote: 'From the heart, may it go to the heart'. It's a sprawling, challenging work that's not heard as often as its tremendous quality would deserve. A numerous choir and sizeable orchestra are needed, and the technical challenge of its difficulties, the scaling of the north wall of a musical Eiger, is no doubt a little daunting to many an amateur musical group. The difficulties of the orchestral part alone are manifold. All credit, therefore, to Abingdon and District Musical Society for its bold ambition in scheduling the work.
Each of its movements is akin to a symphony in itself, and the whole combines grandiosity with intimacy, though not in the same section. It dates from a four-year period when the composer was in his 50s and going – or was already - deaf. Our four soloists, singing from the front rows of the audience seats, had their backs to conductor Alexander Walker throughout, and it was interesting to see how they kept each other in their sight lines in order to ensure precise cues. Well done to those responsible for engaging for this concert such voices as these; the cubic capacity of the school hall is immense and presented a stiff challenge in particular for our soprano and mezzo-soprano. Yet both Anna Gorbachyova and Jeanette Ager had resources of volume to spare and the delicacy to go with it. Mark Saberton's baritone also stood out, and the tenor of Alberto Sousa was a revelation. I've listened to several fairly underwhelming solo tenor voices in the last 12 months, but this one was a treat to hear – strong, precise tone and clear with the libretto; and didn't he just give every indication of having fun.
In the 'Credo' there was an especially thrilling moment in the Et resurrexit tertia die where altos and sopranos joined in a wild cry of joy in unison. Beethoven knew he had to serve up something special for these four words, given that they constitute the very essence of the Christian mystery and message. The soloists joined intricately in the prolonged amen of the 'Credo'; the delicate last bars of this provided a procession of sound: soloists together, then strong choral chords, then flutes and clarinets, and finally soloists again. Marvellous!
a visual standpoint, Alexander Walker made an interesting study. Very
demonstrative in gesture, with large, flowing arm movements, though peremptory
when required, notably in the maelstrom of the 'Gloria'. Of course much of the work
of the conductor and répétiteur with a musical society is
done in rehearsal, and this must have been an arduous undertaking. The massed
forces of the choir rose to the occasion of the 'Gloria', producing a big sound
for the rising scales and herculean fugues and huge climaxes, though I could
not, hand on heart, praise the clarity of their diction. Even knowing the Latin
text, and with it printed in the programme as an
aide memoire, I
found it tricky to follow the choral libretto. In the orchestra, I
especially enjoyed the playing of the flutes within a very good wind
section generally, the horns were prominent, and it was a delight to
hear three trombones; plenty of amateur bands struggle to field just the
To someone like me, a worshipper at the shrine of the great, late Haydn masses and Mozart's masses and Requiem, this Missa Solemnis may never quite occupy that podium reserved for those masterpieces, though this view is a minority one and perhaps even perverse. Be that as it may, it seems to me that in the 'Sanctus/Benedictus' and again in the 'Agnus Dei', Beethoven reaches a glorious intimacy lacking in the more expansive three earlier sections, saving his best for these parts, both direct and deeply moving. The orchestra's leader, Kate Bailey, played her solo (I think representing the Holy Spirit) in the 'Benedictus' with feeling. The 'Agnus Dei' with its timpani interjections reminiscent of the kettledrums in Haydn's Missa in Tempore Belli was sung by the soloists in the dramatic, operatic style of recitative, and typical of Beethoven's restless penchant for introducing novelty even in a finale.
I must mention the venue: the Yolande Paterson Hall at St Helen and St Katharine School, used by the ADMS for the lion's share of its concerts, is a model concert hall - modern, spacious, with comfortable raked seating and excellent acoustics. Peter Smith of the Society offered a very kind welcome, and the icing on the cake was the School's Art Department Summer Exhibition just outside the Hall, showing GCSE and Lower Sixth work. Put simply, about the best quality artwork I've ever seen in a school exhibition.