Ludwig van Beethoven
Conductor: Leonard Bernstein
Performers: Kurt Moll, Edda Moser, René Kollo
Orchestra: Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam
Recorded during a 1978 concert in Amsterdam and released worldwide a year later, Bernstein's last recording of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis is emblematic of the conductor's final period when he re-recorded core repertoire incluidng Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and Mahler with European forces in the final decade or so of his life.
This was the first really exceptional recording of the score I owned. When it was new, I constantly compared it to the then two LP recording led by Gunther Wand on Nonesuch (re-released a few years back on Testament). Next, I recorded a cassette of it from a Sunday morning broadcast by my local PBS station. Later, I acquired it on CD and listened to it against the score I used when I sang in a performance the first time.
Originally released on two full priced LPs late in the analog period, this performance was issued as two CDs early in the digital era. Now it is available on a single CD of 81 minutes' duration in a high gloss, high depth, good sounding digital recording. Never has the music come forward with as much depth and definition as here.
Bernstein's address is decidedly devotional which accounts, in part, for the relatively lengthy duration. Most middle ground recordings take 75-77 minutes while slow pokes like Levine can stretch it out to 84. I generally prefer the faster versions but have always been entranced by Lenny's recording.
He is substnatially aided by glorious playing from the Concergebouw Orchestra and wonderful choral singing by the Hilversum choir, whose tenor section is outstanding. Given that any choir is judged by its tenor section, this tells you from the opening kyrie that this will be a special recording of a very festive occasion.
Three of the four soloists -- soprano Edda Moser, tenor Rene Kollo and bass Kurt Moll -- deliver what I would characeterize as helden accounts of their parts. They sing as if they are participating in a Wagner opera or perhaps in Beethoven's own Fidelio, which was a specialty of Bernstein's. The alto, Hanna Schwarz, sings more roundly and eloquently throughout, neither as heroic as her peers nor as greatly projected. While this mixture may seem odd, the singers make a thrilling quartet and aid Lenny's overall interpretation.
From a conductorial standpoint, two parts, more than any others, expose his or her relative genius or shortcomings: the Benedictus section of the Sanctus, where the conductor must keep the vocal and violin soloists, orchestra and choir in sync at about 65 and andante; and the "mental illness" section that opens the final Presto transition of the Agnus Dei, which Beethoven uses as a musical bridge from the eccelsiastical text to the sublime finale.
It has always been clear that Bernstein demonstrates a mature and complete understanding of the composer's wishes in these sections, just as he demonstrated his understanding of Fidelio and the Ninth Symphony on his famous video, "Celebration in Vienna" some years earlier. While Lenny was among the most wilfull conductors of his (or any other) time, he withheld virtually all of his personal affectations in this concert rendering, allowing the composer's voice to speak universally.
This is very unBernstein, even late in his career when his recordings became significantly less passionate and included tempi judgments that slowed more each succeeding year. Compare this performance to his late Beethoven symphony set with the Vienna Philharmonic, or his hyperpersonal recordings of the Schumann symphonies with the same orchestra, to show the reserve Bernstein exhibited when making this historic performance.
It is this sacrifice, if you will, that transforms this from peripatetic to perfection that strides atop the Mt. Olympus of recordings. The digital recording not only delivers the sound faithfully and more realistically than ever before, the production team gives us 21 tracks on the recording, Arnold Werner-Jensen's note speak eloquently of the music, and the choral text is detailed in five languages.
Short of an SACD recording, I can hardly imagine a recording of this score being any better. Of the dozen of so copies I have owned, the half-dozen live performances I have witnessed, and the two productions in which I have been a member of the chorus, this is clearly the most memorable, both musically and in religious context, of any of them. Now, captured on this ADD recording, it can remain that way for years to come.