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Beethoven’s ‘Missa’ as it should be heard

  • Jun 30, 2013
By Marilyn Farwell From The Register-Guard June 30, 2013 It is fitting that in his last year as artistic director of the Oregon Bach Festival conductor Helmuth Rilling chose to bookend the festival with the two greatest Masses in the Western canon, Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis” and J.S. Bach’s “B minor Mass.” 0628-3271On Friday evening at the Hult Center, Rilling was greeted with a standing ovation even before he conducted a dramatic and affecting “Missa Solemnis.” As one of Beethoven’s last compositions, the “Missa” is traditional and innovative as well as majestic and intimate. Some have called it a symphony in five movements; many of his contemporaries called it impossibly difficult. Beethoven considered it his best work, and it reflects his faith at a time of difficulties, including his deafness. While musically the “Missa” remains within the classical tonal boundaries, Beethoven, as usual, pushes the envelope. The sopranos are asked to spend most of their evening above the staff, the dynamic contrasts are intense and constant, and the closing fugues are longer than even Bach contemplated. Only the best of musical forces dares to present this work, and fortunately the Oregon Bach Festival has those resources. The Berwick Chorus was superb. As is usual with choirs prepared by chorus master Kathy Romey, the enunciation was impeccable and the running notes of the fugues were lucid. The sopranos sang with a crystalline sound and nailed their many high notes. The tenors were melting in their unison account of “et incarnatus est” in the “Credo.” Basses and altos provided a perfect blend for those thrilling homophonic chords and well-articulated fugues. Exciting international singers comprised the solo quartet. Festival favorite Tamara Wilson seemed vocally reticent in the first sections, but by the “Sanctus” her gleaming soprano voice and easy top notes made for thrilling moments. Alto Roxana Constantinescu’s voice has deepened over the years, and this year she was splendid. Nicholas Phan has an excellent tenor instrument but his uneven tone production made it difficult for him to blend with the others. Bass Iván García has a glorious and flexible sound which he used to great effect in the “Agnus Dei.” The jewel in the crown of the “Missa” is the “Benedictus.” From the height of its range, a solo violin depicts the descent of the Holy Spirit as the solo quartet sings of one who comes in the name of the Lord. Rahel Rilling played this solo stunningly, displaying a rich tone, even at the extremes of her instrument, and a moving interpretation. The solo quartet was brilliant. As he does in the Bach Passions, Rilling conducted Beethoven’s work as a drama of the emotions, and the OBF orchestra responded magnificently to his smallest cues, all of which emphasized Beethoven’s shifting dynamics and tempi. Neither a muffed entrance nor a fainting chorister near the end detracted from the evening’s impressive accomplishment. The concert was a fitting tribute to its dedicatee, the late Anne Dhu McLucas. Soon Rilling will pass the baton to Matthew Halls. But while attending a rehearsal and listening to Rilling’s daughter play her violin solo, I also watched her toddler, under the careful eye of a doting grandmother, try to climb the steps to the stage. Helmuth Rilling will leave us in good hands. Marilyn Farwell, a professor emerita of English at the UO, reviews vocal and choral music for The Register-­Guard. Read All