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Barnaby Rayfield
Fanfare, September 2011

BEETHOVEN, L. van: Missa Solemnis (Stoyanova, Garanca, Schade, Selig, Dresden Staatskapelle, Thielemann) (NTSC) 705408
BEETHOVEN, L. van: Missa Solemnis (Stoyanova, Garanca, Schade, Selig, Dresden Staatskapelle, Thielemann) (Blu-ray, HD) 705504

At a time when Dresden, that Baroque and Rococo gem, was full of Berlin’s refugees and the war for us was pretty much good as won, our firebombing of Dresden in February 1945 was not one of Britain and America’s finest hours. Whatever the much-disputed strategic reason was, it still feels, to someone of my generation, like someone stamping unnecessarily on a Fabergé egg. For the U.K., of course, it was a kind of payback for the Germans’ totalling of the pretty medieval city Coventry in 1940. Dresden and Coventry are twinned now, both scarred not so much by the bombing as by the swift, concrete-fixated rebuilding (British architects were just as cross-eyed and short-sighted as East German ones). Since reunification, huge investment and returning industry have brought Dresden back to life, as one by one the historic buildings are being restored so that, in time, it may regain its prewar name of the Jewel Box. Even while part of East Germany, Dresden managed to retain some of its cultural standards, something that has eluded unemployment-ridden Coventry. Although Benjamin Britten premièred his War Requiem there, Coventry doesn’t have any living cultural flagship. In short, it never had anything like the Dresden Staatskapelle, an orchestra that even in the world of globalized blandness, has managed to retain its unmistakeable, rarefied sound.

I vaguely knew about Dresden’s memorial concerts held each year in February. What is startling about watching one for the first time is the complete lack of applause before and after the concert. Judging by the political, elite-looking audience (Mikhail Gorbachev, among others, is there), it feels like a very international, ambassadorial act of mourning. Last year, 2010, was an especially pertinent year for the concert, being not just the 65th anniversary of the bombing but also the 25th of the Semperoper’s reopening. Aside from the War Requiem, I doubt there could be a better choice here than Beethoven’s solemn mass. A strange, awkward masterpiece, it contrasts its lyrical, slow-building climaxes with frenzied joyous moments, culminating in a surprisingly forward-looking, positive conclusion.

Still, in this paean to modern, forward-thinking Germany, I do have to suppress a scoff as Christian Thielemann, with his 1930s haircut, enters the stage. Listening to him, also, is like denying the period-instrument movement ever existed, but having just listened to a chunk of his formidably rich but very calculated Beethoven Symphony cycle, I find Thielemann here a lot warmer and less inclined to show off, both physically and musically. Gone is his cattle prod of a baton (even Felix Weingartner would have thought it a bit much) and he instead conducts the work in a series of warm, embracing hand gestures. He really is a very good choral conductor (not always the case with the megastar conductors), giving the singers and the orchestra equal attention without spoonfeeding them.

Predictably with Thielemann, this is a very grand, smoothly contoured Missa Solemnis that often feels slower than it actually is, with the bass line especially flat-footed. In fact often he races through certain moments, although he then likes applying the brakes for big, melodic statements, or just before an entry for soloists, like in the Credo, where he then suddenly speeds up. Although not always convincing, his tempo fluctuations generally work here without destroying the overall structure, not an easy feat in a work that, unusually for Beethoven, doesn’t develop its themes for very long before changing its mind. For all his formidable control, there is a singing, elastic element to the playing, and without Thielemann wielding his baton, I have less of a sense of him manipulating every single bar.

The chorus is very good, matching the orchestra for its polish, although this is not a performance with which to savor individual layers and voices. Clarity of diction, too, takes second place to the overall texture. This is Beethoven as a single, machine-drilled unit, although this doesn’t stop the listener from enjoying the quality of individual players. The soloists, too, are generally excellent, even by the standards of the starry studio rivals. The Canadian tenor Michael Schade, often rather stiff and dry in timbre, sings here with a really clean, finely etched line. He is not as refulgent as, say, Fritz Wunderlich or Plácido Domingo, but he rides the climaxes very well and is sensitive in ensembles. Franz Josef-Selig doesn’t make much of an impression until the Agnus Dei, where finally his warm if cautious bass starts to shine, but the real stars are the women. Slightly detached at first, Elina Garanča’s peachy, luminous mezzo is a delight and contrasts beautifully with Krassimira Stoyanova’s gleaming, lyric soprano. Stoyanova, like Julia Varady, has one of those extraordinarily versatile voices that for all its lyricism contains a blade of steel, just ideal for cutting through Beethoven’s thick textures. We all have particular favorites, but I honestly can’t think of a better team than here.

All in all, this holds up well as a performance as well as a memorial concert. Picture and sound are predictably excellent, and although very conventionally edited, Michael Beyer’s direction wisely keeps its attention on the musicians, saving any shots of the “important” audience until the end. The airy, spacious acoustic of the Semperoper has been faithfully rendered, which, although it doesn’t sound thrilling, does stay in keeping with Thielemann’s blended textures. So is this the best Missa Solemnis? Well, on DVD I think it might be, although anyone seeking a period-instrument reading will have already stopped reading. I generally like my Beethoven to be rougher and lighter on its feet, so I still want to keep Leonard Bernstein’s (another undervalued choral conductor) Concertgebouw version, definitely more rapt and exciting, although, Kurt Moll’s magnificent bass aside, his soloists are not as good as Thielemann’s. Over on YouTube, there’s a lovely, stately account from Wolfgang Sawallisch at the Vatican in 1970 with a lavish quartet of voices: Ingrid Bjoner, Christa Ludwig, and two wet-behind-the-ears unknowns, Plácido Domingo and Kurt Moll! That’s just begging to be remastered and released commercially, but until then, I think Thielemann makes a fine first choice.



Brian Wilson
MusicWeb International, May 2011

Simon Thompson has already made the DVD version of this performance Recording of the Month—see review—and I’m not about to disagree with him. He has taken the words out of my mouth in every respect…

To Simon Thompson’s review I merely add that the picture quality of the blu-ray equivalent is superb—better than you’re likely to get from the DVD, even if you have an up-scaling machine—and that the quality of the sound matches it, especially if played via something which does it better justice than most TV speakers. I actually have my more expensive Cambridge Audio 650BD blu-ray player linked to my audio system because it also makes a splendid job of playing SACDs, CDs and DVDs, and the less expensive Philips player linked to my TV. This new Unitel recording certainly came over well on both.

There is a price differential between the DVD and blu-ray, with the latter costing about 50% extra. I’m not always sure that it’s worth paying the difference, but, in this case, despite Simon Thompson’s praise for the quality of the DVD picture and sound, I think it is worthwhile.

Christian Thielemann has also recorded a series of DVDs and blu-rays entitled ‘Discovering Beethoven’ for Unitel’s associated label, C-major, which you may wish to check out:
•  Symphonies 1-3: 3 DVDs 704708; 3 Blu-ray 704804 (see review)
•  Symphonies 4-6: 3 DVDs 704908; 3 Blu-ray 705004 (see review)
•  Symphonies 7-9: 3 DVDs 705108; 3 Blu-ray 705204 (see review)

Each symphony is accompanied by a one-hour documentary featuring the Vienna Philharmonic, Christian Thielemann and Joachim Kaiser, and includes excerpts from performances from what the C-major ad describes as ‘legendary performances by Karajan, Bernstein, Böhm and Järvi’.




Lawrence Devoe
Blu-rayDefinition.com, April 2011

The Performance

Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis (Solemn Mass) makes its Blu-ray debut in this February 2010 performance by the Dresden Staatskapelle Orchestra directed by its newly appointed principal conductor, Christian Thielemann. The soloists are a particularly strong and well-matched ensemble: Krassimira Stoyanova (soprano), Elina Garanča (mezzo-soprano), Michael Schade (tenor) and Franz-Josef Selig (bass). The singers are well backed by the superb Sachsischer Staatopernchor Dresden. The Missa, cast in 6 sections, Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei, was composed by Beethoven between 1819 and 1823. It premiered in 1824 along with the monumental Symphony No. 9 (“Choral) . While drawing from the tradition of religious choral music, the Missa Solemnis represents a marked departure in terms of style and the ensemble use of the soloists as is also the case with the Ninth Symphony. This is a very dramatic work with substantial contrasts within and between its sections. Highlights include a mighty vocal fugue that ends the Gloria and the achingly beautiful violin solo on the Benedictus. As a complete performance, Maestro Thielemann , his vocal quartet, and Dresden forces get it absolutely right. The pacing is nigh unto perfect and the control over the tricky wide ranging dynamics is outstanding.

Video Quality

The Dresden Semperoper hall is a simply gorgeous performance venue. It is hard to believe that it was twice destroyed, by fire in 1869, and by Allied fire-bombing in 1945, and finally restored completely in 1985. According to the credits, this video is in 1080p format which may explain the sharp detail in the singer’s close up shots. Director Michael Beyer who also collaborated with Thielemann and the Wiener Philharmoniker on the Beethoven symphony cycle has a tendency toward very frequent cutaways and close-up shots. I could have used a little less camera action with longer sustained shots a la the style of veteran video director Brian Large. As a side note, the audience included former Soviet premier, Mikhael Gorbachev who received the Dresden prize for conflict prevention.

Audio Quality

Judging from the sound recording in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 format, The Semperoper is a lively hall with some of its intrinsic echo generated in the surround channels. The massed voices are warm and reasonably clear. The soloists are captured perfectly by the sound engineers, which considering how good they are individually and together, is quite fortunate. The orchestral proscenium is effectively conveyed and the dynamics which are quite wide are given their due. The only nitpicking here, and it is not major, is that the bass lacks some articulation. As this is a memorial concert, the Missa Solemnis ends in absolute silence which, in and of itself, is completely awe-inspiring considering what we have just witnessed.

Supplemental Materials

No extras! What a disappointment since there was an opportunity to share the history of this annual concert. It has been held since 1951, features different requiems, and memorializes the thousands of Dresdeners who died in fire-bombing of the city during World War II.

The Definitive Word

Overall

While there are several competing DVDs led by the likes of Herbert von Karajan, Leonard Bernstein, and Fabio Luisi (conducting the same orchestra), this Blu-ray stands at the top of the heap. The performance values are superb, there is no weak link in the forces, and both sound recording and videography with minor exceptions are excellent. Thielemann, conducting without baton, has this music in his veins and creates a well-paced performance that is not simply beautiful to hear and behold, but which will move viewers profoundly. You get the feeling that Beethoven had premonitions of his own mortality, 3 years later, and wanted to approach heaven through his compositions. If that were actually the case, he got it so right with this work. Even if you are not a choral music fan, this is one that you must see and hear.




Lawrence Devoe
Blu-rayDefinition.com, April 2011

The Performance

Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis (Solemn Mass) makes its Blu-ray debut in this February 2010 performance by the Dresden Staatskapelle Orchestra directed by its newly appointed principal conductor, Christian Thielemann. The soloists are a particularly strong and well-matched ensemble: Krassimira Stoyanova (soprano), Elina Garanča (mezzo-soprano), Michael Schade (tenor) and Franz-Josef Selig (bass). The singers are well backed by the superb Sachsischer Staatopernchor Dresden. The Missa, cast in 6 sections, Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei, was composed by Beethoven between 1819 and 1823. It premiered in 1824 along with the monumental Symphony No. 9 (“Choral) . While drawing from the tradition of religious choral music, the Missa Solemnis represents a marked departure in terms of style and the ensemble use of the soloists as is also the case with the Ninth Symphony. This is a very dramatic work with substantial contrasts within and between its sections. Highlights include a mighty vocal fugue that ends the Gloria and the achingly beautiful violin solo on the Benedictus. As a complete performance, Maestro Thielemann , his vocal quartet, and Dresden forces get it absolutely right. The pacing is nigh unto perfect and the control over the tricky wide ranging dynamics is outstanding.

Video Quality

The Dresden Semperoper hall is a simply gorgeous performance venue. It is hard to believe that it was twice destroyed, by fire in 1869, and by Allied fire-bombing in 1945, and finally restored completely in 1985. According to the credits, this video is in 1080p format which may explain the sharp detail in the singer’s close up shots. Director Michael Beyer who also collaborated with Thielemann and the Wiener Philharmoniker on the Beethoven symphony cycle has a tendency toward very frequent cutaways and close-up shots. I could have used a little less camera action with longer sustained shots a la the style of veteran video director Brian Large. As a side note, the audience included former Soviet premier, Mikhael Gorbachev who received the Dresden prize for conflict prevention.

Audio Quality

Judging from the sound recording in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 format, The Semperoper is a lively hall with some of its intrinsic echo generated in the surround channels. The massed voices are warm and reasonably clear. The soloists are captured perfectly by the sound engineers, which considering how good they are individually and together, is quite fortunate. The orchestral proscenium is effectively conveyed and the dynamics which are quite wide are given their due. The only nitpicking here, and it is not major, is that the bass lacks some articulation. As this is a memorial concert, the Missa Solemnis ends in absolute silence which, in and of itself, is completely awe-inspiring considering what we have just witnessed.

Supplemental Materials

No extras! What a disappointment since there was an opportunity to share the history of this annual concert. It has been held since 1951, features different requiems, and memorializes the thousands of Dresdeners who died in fire-bombing of the city during World War II.

The Definitive Word

Overall

While there are several competing DVDs led by the likes of Herbert von Karajan, Leonard Bernstein, and Fabio Luisi (conducting the same orchestra), this Blu-ray stands at the top of the heap. The performance values are superb, there is no weak link in the forces, and both sound recording and videography with minor exceptions are excellent. Thielemann, conducting without baton, has this music in his veins and creates a well-paced performance that is not simply beautiful to hear and behold, but which will move viewers profoundly. You get the feeling that Beethoven had premonitions of his own mortality, 3 years later, and wanted to approach heaven through his compositions. If that were actually the case, he got it so right with this work. Even if you are not a choral music fan, this is one that you must see and hear.



Anne Shelley
Music Media Monthly, April 2011

BEETHOVEN, L. van: Missa Solemnis (Stoyanova, Garanca, Schade, Selig, Dresden Staatskapelle, Thielemann) (NTSC) 705408
BEETHOVEN, L. van: Missa Solemnis (Stoyanova, Garanca, Schade, Selig, Dresden Staatskapelle, Thielemann) (Blu-ray, HD) 705504

Since 1951, a requiem has been performed annually on 13–14 February in memory of the lives lost during the 1945 annihilation of Dresden. The still-grieving audience was moved to silence at the conclusion of the inaugural concert, so it’s now an established practice for a moment of silence to occur in place of applause. This performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis (not so much a requiem, but apparently solemn enough to make the cut) marks a couple different occasions: the sixty-fifth anniversary of the destruction of both Dresden and the Semperoper, and also the twenty-fifth anniversary of the opera house’s reopening. The attendance of former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was as symbolic as it was convenient, as he was in town anyway to accept the Dresden Peace Prize; his cameo in the opening credits is brief and stoic. This performance was also the first to occur after the announcement that Thielemann would assume the role of the Staatskapelle’s principal conductor in 2012. It took me until the end of the Kyrie to get used to the sight of a score-less, baton-less Thielemann, whose formidable frame, large hands, and intense focus make him appear at times to be directing traffic or swatting at a particularly persistent fly. The quartet of soloists is very cohesive, though the women outshine their male counterparts in both richness and musicality. Latvian mezzo Elīna Garanča is astoundingly haunting in the Gloria, and on more than one occasion her color and volume nearly overpower the other three soloists combined. The video is well-shot and among its many angles is one from atop and behind the choir, showing a vertical pan of the magnificent hall and encompassing the evening quite nicely. The concert ends emotionally, for instead of audience members rushing to the parking lot amid mad applause, the orchestra and audience all stand and silently honor the dead.






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