At the end of last year Deutsche Grammophon released an important DVD of Leonard Bernstein conducting Beethoven in Europe during the 1970s. It features his 1978 performance of the Missa Solemnis (Solemn Mass), together with two briefer Beethoven choral items.
Beethoven’s approach to the ancient liturgical text was far from conventional — no one could imagine his version being performed as part of any traditional church service. Instead, he imposed on these Christian words a positively cosmic tone. The stars, the planets, and the universe itself seem to explode with a violent but joyful energy, expressing both Beethoven’s own non-doctrinal deism and the revolutionary impulses of his turbulent era.
This was perfectly suited to Bernstein’s extrovert, supra-romantic personality. His performance, given with Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw Orchestra, is as a result especially memorable. With his tousled hair, and tears always seeming ready to pour down his face, he appears to be celebrating his own continuing life as well as lamenting his assured mortality. He’s as much trying to educate his audience as guide his orchestra, too, and the thought that outside the concert hall Amsterdam was at that date awash with half the world’s hippies, who might have been happy to endorse Beethoven’s general sentiments but would almost all have yawned at his music, forms a curious backdrop to watching the event today.
DRAMA AND PATHOS
Coming hot on the heels of the release of Bernstein’s Mahler cycle from the same era, this DVD is historically important. The Missa Solemnis is something of a white elephant, after all — probably more revered than loved, accorded its due by Beethoven scholars but not that often performed. Leonard Bernstein sets out to change all that, though, and if you think any version might succeed in bringing out the work’s drama and pathos, this prophetic rendering is certainly one to try.
It’s sometimes said that mediocre Mozart is a lot less interesting than mediocre Beethoven. (There’s no mediocre Bach, so he can be excluded from the picture). And the five Mozart violin sonatas performed by Gil and Orli Shaham on a DVD issued by Kultur in 2006 are unlikely to be considered in the top category of that composer’s products. The two musicians, however, do all they can to make them lively and accessible. They play them in a sumptuous room in Vienna’s Daun-Kinsky Palace and, with their smiles and exchanged glances, the music’s intimate and affectionate character is successfully brought out.
When I wrote last month about two samples of the revived interest in Rossini’s early non-comic operas, I didn’t mean to suggest that his established comedies were any less interesting. La Cenerentola (Cinderella) is characterized by the simultaneous difficulty and frivolity of its music. Few arias can be as difficult to sing as some of those it contains, yet the music appears to go to great lengths to avoid any real seriousness. There are echoes of Mozart’s sublime comic operas, but a total absence of Mozart’s highly characteristic blending of high spirits and melancholy. Rossini’s comic operas are all icing and no cake, you might say.
The famous version of La Cenerentola from Houston Grand Opera needs no new praise here, but it does stand as an example of the nature of the genre. Houston’s opera house is vast, and for Cecilia Bartoli’s US debut it was packed tight with enthusiastic fans. They weren’t disappointed, and the performance recorded here remains a classic one. But it also demonstrates once again what Rossini’s operatic comedies have, and what they lack.