Nikolaus Harnoncourt interpreted Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis at the Salzburg Festival tonight the way it might have sounded had Beethoven not been a genius.
Harnoncourt regularly produces performances that make the listener hear a piece differently – it’s just that his performances are usually no good. But they can provoke an understanding of why the music was good in the first place.
Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis is an expansive work. It was never meant for a church, but Beethoven simply used the form of a mass as an excuse for some very forward-looking music-making.
For tonight’s performance, with Harnoncourt’s own Concentus Musicus Wien and the Arnold Schoenberg Chor, Harnoncourt deconstructed the music for an ensemble barely larger than a chamber group. When Beethoven called for soaring lines, Harnoncourt coaxed restricted tones. If Harnoncourt did allow any hint of Beethoven’s lush harmonies to emerge, he did so by reducing still further the number of instruments, thinning out the sound.
Harnoncourt also seems to have instructed orchestra and chorus to make sounds as though they were in a gothic church with reverberating acoustics. However, we were in Salzburg’s Large Festival House, not a church. So having the chorus sing staccato, and the strings play in a detached manner, broke up Beethoven’s sounds further and never let them open into the hall. The brass played into their own laps, with completely muffled tones, when the music called for brightness. In all, this was a backwards-looking, 18th-century mass, not a work of late Beethoven at the top of his innovation.
Laura Aikin and Elisabeth Kulman did their best to provide full soprano and alto solo voices. Johannes Chum’s tenor was limp on the higher register, and Ruben Drole’s bass came out bitter and pinched in the lower register.
Perhaps the only truly moving part of this performance came when concertmaster Erich Höbarth, playing the violin solos, picked up the entire performance onto his back and carried it through the Benedictus. His violin solos were nothing short of spectacular, and as Harnoncourt allowed him to shine he raised the level of the entire ensemble. Of course, the Benedictus is also the most delicate part of the Missa Solemnis, and therefore did not entirely contradict Harnoncourt’s limited worldview. But this was Höbarth’s moment in charge, not Harnoncourt’s.
Also worth a mention was the solo flute, which had a wonderfully pure tone, which stood out more since the rest of the orchestra often did not.