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Music review: Herbert Blomstedt leads Beethoven's Missa Solemnis

April 15, 2012 |  4:01 pm

Herbert Blomstedt
That incomparable Beethovenian Wilhelm Furtwängler thought the Missa Solemnis to be Beethoven’s greatest work. Too great, even, to perform. He stopped conducting it at age 44. But maybe if Furtwängler, who died in 1954 at 68, had lived on, he might have come to terms with this visionary epic mass. A spiritually enthralling call for peace, the Missa Solemnis is a habitable country for old men.

The former San Francisco Symphony music director Herbert Blomstedt, who turns 85 in July, led a superbly taut, vital performance of the Missa Solemnis with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Master Chorale on Friday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall. That entitles him to a platinum card in the prestigious Solemnis Seniors Club.

Other members include an 85-year-old Colin Davis, who conducted Beethoven’s mass in New York this season to glorious reviews. One week younger than Blomstedt, Kurt Masur remains a member in good standing despite a recent dustup in Boston. He withdrew from the Boston Symphony’s Missa Solemnis last month, the orchestra said, because of his frail condition. Masur immediately let it be known that he is fit enough to conduct elsewhere. Toscanini’s vigorous 1953 recording of the Missa Solemnis was conducted by an 86-year-old.

So what is it about the Missa Solemnis? The L.A. Phil hadn’t programmed it since 1980, and obviously the normally fearless Gustavo Dudamel was not the one who wanted dibs on making up for a glaring neglect. The orchestral and choral parts can feel awkward and, as in the Ninth Symphony, Beethoven challenges four courageous vocal soloists to soar. But Wagner is difficult. Mahler is difficult. John Adams is difficult.

The real issue is fathoming Beethoven’s transcendence. This is the first time in a traditional Catholic mass that what is known in Indian tradition as the permanent emotions — the erotic, the heroic, the odious, anger, mirth, fear, sorrow and the wondrous — all, as is also prescribed by this tradition, move toward tranquility. They are precisely the emotions John Cage had attempted to free his music from in his quest for tranquility in the Concerto for Prepared Piano, which the L.A. Phil performed the previous week and which perhaps still resonated with some of the players.

Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis is just as radical. Some of these emotions and particularly the wondrous are, of course, Catholic Mass material. But a principal difference between Western religion and that of the East is that resolution into tranquility through an emptying of the spirit.

From the start Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, about 80 minutes long, grips the listener with the wondrous. But ever the neurotic, he then starts throwing feelings at you. Austere spirituality, expressed in quiet ancient modes for the resurrection (sorrow) and resurrection (fear), can be broken into by ecstatic vocal lines (the erotic).

As the mass proceeds, Beethoven does the craziest things. Out of nowhere, the Sanctus turns into a splendid violin concerto, incandescently played on this occasion by concertmaster Martin Chalifour. War (the odious) breaks out in the final Agnus Dei before Beethoven reaches one the most transcendental expressions of peace in all his music. 

Blomstedt’s performance was one of acceptance. He paid attention to everything and to nothing. He was devoted to detail and orderly in his rhythms. But he let Beethoven be, just as a wise observer lets Nature be. The score’s unfathomable oddities were not fathomed. Nor were they exploited. Nor were they denied.

The ending was of otherworldly beauty, but the final cadence was surprisingly abrupt. I’ve never before found a conductor not tempted to try to make this Beethovenian transcendence seem like it should be eternal, something we might take home with us. But Blomstedt, showing both great wisdom and no-nonsense courage, revealed a greater truth about the transience of even transcendence.

That took some doing. So long has it been since a Philharmonic performance that many in the orchestra had never played the Missa Solemnis. Perhaps that sense of discovery helped contribute to an aura of excitement. The clear Disney acoustic helped and so did its great organ, compellingly played by Joanna Pearce Martin.

The soloists — Ruth Ziesak, a honeyed soprano; Gerhild Romberger, a reverberant mezzo-soprano; Richard Croft a vibrant tenor; and Hanno Müller-Brachmann, a resonant bass-baritone — made for a satisfying vocal quartet. The Master Chorale was stunning, whether in fugues taken at uncompromisingly fast tempos or in sustaining the final quiet that Blomstedt refused to allow to go on for too long.


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Photo: Herbert Blomstedt conducts Beethoven's Missa Solemnis with soloists Ruth Ziesak, left, Gerhild Romberger, Richard Croft and Hanno Müller-Brachmann at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Friday night. Credit: Christina House / Los Angeles Times.