Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique
John Eliot Gardiner, artistic director and conductor
Elisabeth Meister, soprano
Jennifer Johnston, mezzo-soprano
Michael Spyres, tenor
Matthew Rose, bass
In recent years, much of conductor John Eliot Gardiner's focus has been on what he perceives as the emotional universality of canonical Western classical music. It is a point driven home by the images he selected for his Bach cantata "pilgrimage" series that recently concluded on his own Soli Dei Gloria label. Each volume was graced with an arresting photo portrait of people from Africa, Central and South Asia by Steve McCurry — who also shot the iconic "Afghan Girl" picture for National Geographic.
In Gardiner's hands, one can feel the same sort of impetus towards catholicism here, framed within the outlines of Beethoven's actual Catholic Mass, the Missa Solemnis. It is a spiritual declaration that might perhaps supercede specific dogma or doctrine. As Beethoven inscribed on the score: "From the heart — may it in turn go to the heart!" That feeling was underscored when Gardiner's Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique (ORR) and Monteverdi Choir created their now-iconic version of this work in November 1989 — with more than half of the resulting recording culled from a session held on Nov. 9th, the same night the Berlin Wall was opened.
The Missa Solemnis is a outsized work, one that Beethoven constructed over four years. Almost 90 minutes long and scored for a large chorus and orchestra, it is an uncomfortable squeeze in either a church or a concert hall. But Gardiner and his lean, period performance oriented musicians lay bare the core of this massive piece, revealing it to be a searching meditation on mortality.
Beethoven originally intended the Missa Solemnis, which ends hauntingly with an anxiety-laden Agnus Dei roiled by the horns and drums of war, to be a partner piece for his emphatically resplendent Ninth Symphony — and for the two to be premiered together in a single concert. Ultimately, while that did not happen at the debut, the Ninth Symphony remains the unheard answer to the big questions of this Mass.