Review: Beethoven: Missa Solemnis, University of Essex Choir, Royal Choral Society, Snape Maltings, May 21

Beethoven: Missa Solemnis, University of Essex Choir, Royal Choral Society, Snape Maltings, May 21

The University of Essex Choir’s annual visits to Snape Maltings Concert Hall have yielded some memorable performances. This year the Royal Choral Society joined the Essex choir for a joint ascent of one of the choral repertory’s major peaks, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis.

Beethoven composed the Mass for the enthronement as an archbishop of Archduke Rudolf, his pupil, patron and friend. But the work grew much bigger than originally planned, was three years late for the occasion and in any case was ill suited to liturgical use. It is, however, an awesomely original masterwork. Opportunities to hear it are infrequent.

In the heat of creation Beethoven cared nothing for performers’ convenience, and the Mass poses severe challenges. Under Richard Cooke’s vigorous direction these singers sustained long passages at uncomfortable pitches with commendable stamina. A fine blaze of sound launched the Gloria, and the two choirs were at their confident best in the great double fugue that ends the Credo.

There were only a few misjudgements like the trombones in the Sanctus drowning the four soloists, among whom the smooth, warm tones of the mezzo-soprano Victoria Simmonds were outstanding.

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The Essex Sinfonia gave a reliable account of the important orchestral part, not least Beethoven’s inventive strokes like the fluttering flute evoking the dove as symbol of the Holy Spirit and the reminder of distant war drums that breaks into the concluding prayer for peace.

‘From the heart’, Beethoven wrote in the score, ‘may it in turn go to the heart.’ Most of this performance did.

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Eric Mason

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