Beethoven Missa Solemnis Mozart Coronation Mass KarajanBeethoven, Missa Solemnis

Mozart, Coronation Mass (Krönungsmesse)

Missa Solemnis: Gundula Janowitz, soprano; Christa Ludwig, alto; Fritz Wunderlich, tenor; Walter Berry, bass

Josef Nebois, organ

Coronation MassAnna Tomowa-Sintow, soprano; Agnes Baltsa: alto; Werner Krenn, tenor; José van Dam, bass

Rudolf Scholz, organ

Wiener Singverein

Chorus Master: Reinhold Schmid (Missa Solemnis), Helmuth Froschauer (Coronation Mass)

Berliner Philharmoniker

Herbert von Karajan, conductor

Deutsche Grammophon, 1996

Herbert von Karajan recorded several times Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis and Mozart’s Coronation Mass K317 and those recorded in the present album are only two of the possible choices an eager listener can do. Among the most significant recording of the Missa Solemnis, there are the 1959 recording with Leontyne Price, Ludwig, Gedda and Zaccaria;  the 1975 recording with Janowitz, Baltsa, Schereier and van Dam; and the DVD recorded in Salzburg in 1979 (with Tomowa-Sintow and van Dam among the soloists). As for the Coronation Mass, the most significant is certainly the one recorded in the St Peter Basilica in 1985 at the presence of Pope John Paul II, which is available in audio and in video.

The Missa Solemnis of the present album has been recorded in Berlin in 1966, while the Coronation Mass dates to 1975. Both Masses were performed by the same orchestra and chorus, the Berliner Philharmoniker and the Wiener Singverein, and therefore both benefit from the fine playing of the orchestra and are spoiled by the disputable singing of the chorus, which is weak – not to say awkward – especially for what concerns the sopranos, who sometimes are unbearably wobbly and imprecise.

This is a weakness that cannot be disregarded, but Karajan’s conduction and even more the soloists’ performances counterbalance it.

Karajan’s rendition of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis is rather austere and makes it a monumental composition, even though in certain passages inspiration seems to be sacrificed in favour of hieratic formality. The choice of tempos, which are usually appropriate with the exception of few points, and the orchestral colours give prominence exactly to this tendency and the Mass appears as a sumptuous and imperturbable celebration, where there is only the regret that a little more warmth has found not place next to brightness.

The soloists’ names are all distinguished and among those who worked more frequently with Karajan. Among them, soprano Gundula Janowitz and her silvery, expressive voice deserve a place of honour, next to tenor Fritz Wunderlich, who offers here another reason to regret the premature end of his glorious career. Alto Christa Ludwig and bass Walter Berry are no less valuable than their colleagues. Overall, the four of them are some of the most desirable singers Beethoven’s Mass has ever had.

Things are a little less fine in Mozart’s Coronation Mass. Karajan chooses here a fast tempo that seems (incomprehensibly) hurried and that disappoints a little those who remember the same Mass conducted by him at St Peter’s Baislica, where the tempi and the consequent sacredness that derives from them were almost ideal. The only comforting thing from this imperfect result is that the ten years passed between the two recorded has not been wasted, but it is of little consolation while listening to the present one. Here too the soloists do a very good job, especially soprano Anna Tomowa-Sintow, despite the fact that her attempt to explore the high meaning of the Latin text (especially in her solo part at the beginning of the Agnus Dei) is sometimes frustrated by the conductor’s speed. Alto Agnes Baltsa, tenor Werner Krenn and bass José van Dam are equally remarkable.

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