Missa Solemnis at Barbican

The Times, by Hilary Finch, 19 October 2012

Missa Solemnis at Barbican

Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis is performed to perfection and brought into terrifying life in this gala fundraising concert

From the heart to the heart — just as Beethoven demanded: this gala fundraising concert by the Monteverdi Choir and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique took the composer’s Missa Solemnis and shook it into new and often terrifying life.

The Missa Solemnis is an enormous, struggling act of faith in the impossible possibility of faith — or so it seemed in this searching and sometimes shocking performance. The demands of the music are horrendous: even in the best performances the ear becomes used to textural muddle, as well as tremulous strain in the soloists. But here, Lucy Crowe, Jennifer Johnston, James Gilchrist and Matthew Rose were all equally matched, and more than equal to the task.

Gilchrist’s opening cry for mercy pierced the heart; Johnston’s mezzo contributed both warmth and sombre darkness to the ensemble. And Crowe’s indefatigable and unerring soprano, a bright peal of bells in the Sanctus, rang in the ears long after the performance was over.

The lasting impression of this Missa Solemnis, though, was of John Eliot Gardiner’s determination to reveal the sheer awe and terror within its music. Praise and adoration seemed themselves by-products of fear in the blast of raw, hard-edged voices that was the Gloria, and in the ricocheting of valveless trumpets and horns in the accelerating “Amen”.

Cellos and flutes spiralled upwards in the divine descent of the Credo, as though the incarnation were a raising up of human flesh and potential. And the “vitam venturi saeculi” was gasped out, vacillating between diffident hope and defiant confirmation of the life to come. And then a remarkable Agnus Dei: a plea for peace as though from the battlefield itself, with tense, dry drum rolls, bronze alarums, and the leader, Peter Hanson, playing a violin solo that found fugitive light in the heart of darkness.