Christian Thielemann conducts Beethoven’s “Missa solemnis”

16 Dec 2017

Berliner Philharmoniker
Christian Thielemann

Rundfunkchor Berlin

  • Ludwig van Beethoven
    Missa solemnis in D major, op. 123 (91 min.)

    Luba Orgonášová soprano, Elisabeth Kulman mezzo-soprano, Daniel Behle tenor, Franz-Josef Selig bass baritone, Rundfunkchor Berlin, Philipp Ahmann chorus master

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    Christian Thielemann in conversation with Raimar Orlovsky (18 min.)

Following Bach’s B Minor Mass, the Berliner Philharmoniker now perform another mass setting which is a milestones in the history of music: the Missa solemnis by Ludwig van Beethoven. The work was composed for the upcoming installation of Archduke Rudolph of Austria as Archbishop of Olomouc. Beethoven wanted to give his pupil, friend and mentor a musical gift “to the glorification of that solemn day”. But the ceremony took place without the new mass. The composer had not finished – because he was wrestling with a work that would go beyond the scope of the genre. In his Missa, which was performed in full for the first time four years after Rudolph’s inauguration, Beethoven combined Catholic liturgy and dramatic expressiveness, contemplative prayer and hymn-like gestures, archaic elements and symphonic design into a monumental work of art that the composer himself described as “the most successful product of his mind”. The synthesis of text and music is masterly: in the Credo, for example, it gives the “Et incarnatus est” a mystical intensity through the use of church modes, and at the petition “Dona nobis pacem” in the Agnus Dei, he points out with parading military fanfares how threatened the peace is. He links old compositional techniques from the time of Palestrina and the Baroque such as imitative and fugal part writing with the modern principles of the symphony.

Beethoven himself saw in the work more than a mass: it could – as he wrote in letters to Goethe and Friedrich Zelter – “also be given as an oratorio”. But whether Mass, oratorio or choral symphony, the composer’s intention was “to awaken and permanently instil religious feelings in the singers as well as the listeners”. Since the turn of the millennium, the Berliner Philharmoniker have performed the Missa solemnis three times: in 2002, conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt; in 2007 with Bernard Haitink, and in 2012 under Herbert Blomstedt.

Conducting the orchestra on this occasion is Christian Thielemann who has appeared with the Philharmoniker more often in recent years with performances of choral works, including Giuseppe Verdi’s Quattro pezzi sacri, the German Requiem by Johannes Brahms, Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem and Anton Bruckner’s Mass in F minor. At the side of Christian Thielemann and the Berliner Philharmoniker in these works was one of the greatest choirs of our time: the Rundfunkchor Berlin, which also participates in the performance of the Missa solemnis. The cast of performers is completed by a distinguished quartet of soloists: Luba Orgonášová, Elisabeth Kulmann, Daniel Behle and Franz-Joseph Selig.

Truth in Contradiction, or In Praise of Struggle

Beethoven’s Missa solemnis

The fact that Ludwig van Beethoven, the composer of “humanity and demythologisation”, accepted the constraints of a mass setting again in 1820, from the outset depriving himself of any possibility for determining the formal organisation, was a historical paradox for Theodor W. Adorno, the consequences of which he saw clearly reflected in the stylistic inconsistencies of the Missa solemnis. In his 1959 essay Verfremdetes Hauptwerk Alienated Masterpiece Adorno also observed a widespread “irrelevant worship” of a difficult work which has lost “any possible relation to social practice” so that it is essentially only perceived by its aura.

Beethoven’s Missa solemnis certainly offers enough sources of confusion. In an attempt to bring out more subtle levels of meaning from the text of the ordinary of the mass, which has been interpreted musically thousands of times, Beethoven provides dynamic, tonal and stylistic contrasts within a concise framework. The eclectic profusion of expressive devices used ranges from archaic, church mode idioms (“Et incarnatus est”) to conventional word-painting (ascending scales to “Et ascendit”) to passages of extreme theatricality (the much-discussed warlike interlude in “Dona nobis pacem”). Symphonic build-ups, which are pushed to the brink of frenzied ecstasy (the fugal conclusions of the Gloria and Credo), are heard alongside a genuinely soloistic passage like the extended violin solo in the Benedictus.

One of the principal objections to the Missa during the 19th century was its ambivalent position with regard to liturgical practice. With a performing time of approximately one and a half hours, it is obviously too long for use in a normal church service, and although there were repeated attempts to establish the work in the church context, it is performed for the most part in the concert hall today – for acoustical reasons alone. Franz Josef Fröhlich, a musical scholar from Würzburg, was one of the few contemporary critics who immediately understood that Beethoven had not rejected traditional generic norms because of inability, capriciousness or a passion for innovation, as most of his colleagues alleged. In a review from 1828, Fröhlich wrote that conceptually the Mass was intended rather for a purpose far beyond that of the religious service. Otherwise Beethoven would have conceived it on a more modest scale, the critic continued, and “some passages which exceed the bounds of the church style in their present treatment and verge on the realm of the symphony or dramatic music due to their striking effects” would have been ruled out from the beginning.

Statement of personal belief

Beethoven seems to have arrived at these decisions only gradually, during the composition itself. What began as a work for a specific occasion developed over time into a statement of personal belief. Beethoven made the first sketches during the early months of 1819, when it was definite that his student Archduke Rudolph, the youngest brother of the Austrian Emperor Franz I, was to be appointed as Archbishop of Olmütz in Moravia (now Olomouc in the Czech Republic) in March 1820. Of the three noble Viennese patrons who joined forces in 1809 to provide Beethoven with a large annuity, thus enabling him to devote his life to art free of worry and preventing his impending move to Kassel, the Archduke – whom Beethoven called the “amiable, talented prince” – was by far the most generous and reliable sponsor.

It was clear that Beethoven would compose a festival mass for the installation of his noble benefactor and enthusiastic admirer of his works. The project also reflected his strong desire to receive a permanent appointment as the Archduke’s court music director later in life, which he had long counted on. That was not to happen, however. Beethoven had one year to complete the work, so he postponed other projects, such as the Ninth Symphony and the cycle of variations on a waltz by Anton Diabelli, for the time being. The fact that the work on the Mass already began to slow down in the Gloria, after an apparently unproblematic start, can be explained only in part by the difficult circumstances in Beethoven’s personal life during the lawsuit over the guardianship of his nephew Karl.

Although Beethoven may initially have envisioned a standard length of around 45 minutes for a setting consistent with the order of the liturgy, the Missa solemnis quickly assumed much larger proportions. Unperturbed, Beethoven let the date of the bishop’s installation pass by – in the end, a mass by Johann Nepomuk Hummel was performed – and took several years, during which he worked on other compositions, including the last three piano sonatas, opp. 109 to 111, concurrently with the Missa. The score was not completed until early 1823. The premiere finally took place at the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic Society in April 1824, under the auspices of another patron, the Russian Prince Galitzin.

Volatile, heterogeneous, expressive

That the Missa is to be understood as a deeply emotional statement is already indicated by the well-known dedication “From the heart – may it go to the heart!”, which Beethoven wrote on the first page of the Kyrie in the manuscript. Among the many passages in which this urgency of inner emotion is perceptible, one is particularly striking. At the close of the “Qui tollis” in the Gloria, Beethoven expands the plea for mercy into an increasingly imploring prayer by the soloists and chorus, which grows to a despairing tutti cry on an extremely dissonant F sharp minor six-five chord. The recurring individual voices add the agitated exclamations “Ah” and “Oh” as if alarmed, which Beethoven inserted to emphasise the spontaneity of personal expression.

If this section ends peacefully and introspectively, the jagged triad motif in the following “Quoniam” is sweeping. A similar gulf between nonchalance on the one hand and obsessive emphasis on the other can be heard at the end of the Credo. While the “Credo in unam sanctam catholicam”, the profession of faith in the church as an institution, is recited monotonously by the tenors of the chorus in staccato – and almost drowned out by the constantly repeated “credo” cries of the other voices – the prospect of “eternal life” is given disproportionate importance with more than 170 bars. The hope of life after death, which may still sound like an optimistic assertion during the breathtaking stretto fugue, intensifies to a moving vision in the exquisitely orchestrated pianissimo of the close. Here, there is inner sympathy with particular statements, there, audible alienation towards formulas which are, at best, still followed ritually. Perhaps it is these discrepancies in particular which offer the contemporary listener who questions his own religiosity something he can directly identify with.

It is precisely these aspects of the Missa, which gave rise to doubts in earlier generations, that summarise its profound truth: the volatility and heterogeneity of the inflections, the strange convergence of very expressive and very general statements. The arduous tone of the work results from such rifts in the certainty of faith. Even the most brilliant interpreters are well advised not to smooth it out rashly. It conveys the essence.

Anselm Cybinski

Translation: Phyllis Anderson

Christian Thielemann has been principal conductor of the Staatskapelle Dresden since autumn 2012 and artistic director of the Salzburg Easter Festival since 2013. He previously was general music director of the Munich Philharmonic from 2004 to 2011. Thielemann studied at the Hochschule der Künste (Academy of Arts) in his native Berlin before gaining a thorough grounding in conducting at smaller theatres in Germany. His first major appointment was as principal conductor at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein, where he spent three seasons prior to his appointment as general music director of Nuremberg Opera. He held a similar post with the Deutsche Oper in Berlin from 1997 to 2004. Thielemann has built up an international reputation for himself, appearing with many of the world’s most prestigious orchestras and with opera companies throughout Europe, North America and Japan. As a guest conductor he is particularly closely associated with the Vienna Philharmonic and the Bayreuth Festival where he has been a regular conductor since his debut in the summer of 2000 (Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg). He was named musical adviser of the festival in 2010 and its music director in 2015. The principal pillars of Christian Thielemann’s broad repertoire are the works of the Classical and Romantic periods as well as the music of Hans Werner Henze. Made an honorary member of the Royal Academy of Music in London in 2011, he has also been awarded honorary doctorates by the Franz Liszt College of Music in Weimar and the Catholic University of Leuven (Belgium). In May 2015 he was awarded the Richard Wagner prize by the Richard Wagner Society of the city of Leipzig. Thielemann first appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1996 and has returned many times since then, most recently in December 2016, when he conducted works by Beethoven and Bruckner.

Luba Orgonášová, born in Bratislava (Slovakia), is one of the leading interpreters of lyrical roles in German and Italian opera and the concert repertoire. She studied piano and singing in her hometown, before beginning to perform in Germany. In 1988, Luba Orgonášová was offered a three-year contract as a guest artist with the Wiener Volksoper. Shortly afterwards, she made her debut at the Vienna State Opera as Pamina (Die Zauberflöte). In 1990, the soprano had great success with her debut at the Salzburg Easter and Summer Festivals as Marcellina in a new production of Fidelio, which was conducted by Kurt Masur. The same year she made her role debut as Konstanze in Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail in Paris. Since then, Luba Orgonášová has performed regularly on the stages of the most prestigious opera houses and concert halls around the world, working not only with top international orchestras, but also with major ensembles and specialists in the field of historical performance practice. Luba Orgonášová first appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker in September 1995, singing the role of Agathe in concert performances of Weber’s Der Freischütz, conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Most recently, in September 2013, the artist was heard as a soloist with the orchestra in three concerts conducted by Sir Simon Rattle with Leoš Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass. Since autumn 2014, Luba Orgonášová holds a professorship at Zurich’s University of the Arts.

Elisabeth Kulman received her training at the University of Music and Performing Arts, Vienna under Helena Łazarska. In 2001 she made her debut as Pamina at the Volksoper Wien and enjoyed initial success as a soprano. In 2005, she changed to mezzo-soprano and alto roles. In the ensemble of the Wiener Staatsoper, Elisabeth Kulman quickly became popular with audiences and developed a broad repertoire. Her most important roles include Fricka, Erda and Waltraute (Der Ring des Nibelungen), Carmen, Mrs. Quickly (Falstaff), Brangäne (Tristan and Isolde), Begbick (Mahagonny), Prince Orlofsky (Die Fledermaus) and Marina (Boris Godunov), Since 2010, Elisabeth Kulman has been working as a freelance artist and appears as a guest artist in solo roles in music capitals all over the world, including Vienna, Paris, London, Munich, Berlin, Tokyo, Salzburg, Moscow. She regularly sings with major orchestras and conductors such as Zubin Mehta, Kirill Petrenko, Christian Thielemann, Marek Janowski and Franz Welser-Möst. She had a particularly close working relationship with Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Since 2015, Elisabeth Kulman has concentrated her artistic activities on recitals (together with her accompanist of many years, Eduard Kutrowatz), concerts, and concert performances of operas. She is particularly fond of unconventional projects, such as “Mussorgsky Dis-Covered” with jazz quartet, and her solo programme “La femme c’est moi”, in which she presents pieces from Carmen to the Beatles. In these concerts, Elisabeth Kulman appears with the Berliner Philharmoniker for the first time.

Daniel Behle comes from Hamburg, where he studied trombone, composition and singing at the city’s Hochschule für Musik und Theater. First engagements took the tenor to the Staatstheater Oldenburg, the Volksoper Wien and Oper Frankfurt. His broad repertoire ranges from masterpieces of the Baroque, Classical and Romantic repertoire to compositions from the 20th and 21st centuries. Daniel Behle gives concerts with orchestras including the Staatskapelle Dresden, the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, the DSO Berlin, the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra, Santa Cecilia Rome, the Wiener Symphoniker, the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig and the Bachakademie Stuttgart. He works with conductors such as Bertrand de Billy, Christoph Eschenbach, Marek Janowski, Ingo Metzmacher, Kent Nagano and Yannick Nézet-Séguin. As a lieder singer, he has performed at the Schwetzinger Festspiele, the Schubertiade, the Prinzregententheater Munich, the Kölner Philharmonie, the Laeiszhalle Hamburg, the Beethovenhaus Bonn, the Wigmore Hall in London and the Alte Oper Frankfurt. He is also active as a composer. In the summer of 2017, Behle made his debut as David in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at the Bayreuth Festival in a production by Barrie Kosky, conducted by Philippe Jordan. For his portrayal of the villain Artabano in a recording of Vinci’s Artaserse, Daniel Behle was nominated for a Grammy in 2014. Daniel Behle makes his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in these concerts.

Franz-Josef Selig graduated in church music from the Cologne University of Music before changing to the vocal classes there by Claudio Nicolai. Early in his career, he was a member of the ensemble at the Essen Aalto Theatre for six years. Today, the freelance singer appears regularly in opera houses all over the world – such as the Vienna State Opera, La Scala in Milan, Opéra National de Paris and the Metropolitan Opera New York – and at the Aix-en-Provence, Bayreuth and Salzburg festivals in the great bass roles of Gurnemanz, King Marke, Sarastro, Rocco, Osmin, Daland and Fasolt. Franz-Josef Selig has worked with conductors such as Semyon Bychkov, Marek Janowski, Philippe Jordan, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Antonio Pappano and Simon Rattle. Despite his numerous concert and opera engagements, Franz-Joseph Selig finds time for recitals, where he is also to be heard as a member of the ensemble “Liedertafel” together with Markus Schaefer, Christian Elsner and Michael Volle with Gerold Huber at the piano. Numerous CD and DVD productions document the artistic versatility of the singer. The bass made his debut in Berliner Philharmoniker concerts in December 2013 in Robert Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe’s Faust, conducted by Daniel Harding. He last appeared with the orchestra in December 2016 in performances of Bruckner’s F minor Mass, conducted by Christian Thielemann.

The Rundfunkchor Berlin (Berlin Radio Choir) is a regular guest at major festivals and the chosen partner of international orchestras and conductors such as Sir Simon Rattle, Christian Thielemann and Daniel Barenboim. In Berlin the choir has long-standing partnerships with the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester, the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester and the Berliner Philharmoniker. The exceptional breadth of its repertoire, its stylistic versatility, delight in experimentation, stunning responsiveness and richly nuanced sound all contribute to making it one of the world’s outstanding choral ensembles. Its work is documented by many recordings and awards, including three Grammy Awards. With its experimental project series, in collaboration with artists from diverse disciplines, the Rundfunkchor Berlin is breaking down the classical concert format and adopting new modes of choral music for a new audience: e.g. the interactive scenic version of Brahms’s German Requiem staged by Jochen Sandig / Sasha Waltz & Guests attracted great attention. With annual activities such as the Sing-along Concert and the “Liederbörse” (Song Exchange) for children and young people or the education programme SING! the choir invites people of various walks of life to the world of singing. Academy and Schola support the next generation of professionals. Founded in 1925 the ensemble was shaped by conductors including Helmut Koch, Dietrich Knothe, Robin Gritton and Simon Halsey (2001–2015). As of the 2015/16 season Gijs Leenars took over as new principal conductor and artistic director. The Rundfunkchor last appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker in October 2017 in Brahms’s German Requiem conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

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