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American Record Guide, January 2012

The performance is quite a good one. First credit should go to the chorus: large, powerful, and very well prepared. They have the endurance and the rich sound to give Thielemann what he wants: a broad, deeply expressive account of the piece. Also very fine are the soloists…this is a very good performance… © 2012 American Record Guide Read complete review on American Record Guide online

Simon Thompson
MusicWeb International, December 2011

this is a splendid interpretation of Beethoven’s great choral masterpiece, as monumental as the anniversary it celebrates. © MusicWeb International

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.

Ivan March
Gramophone, July 2011

A Dresden Missa solemnis to commemorate the end of the war

Returning to DVD after listening to a number of CDs, one is always surprised by the sheer quality of the reproduction, especially noticeable on relatively modest reproducing equipment, with the speakers either side of the TV set. Certainly that comment applies to this new live performance of the Missa solemnis, beautifully recorded in the warm acoustics of the Dresden Semperoper. The orchestra is beautifully balanced internally, with splendid trombones when they enter in the Credo, which is thrillingly done, and later at the opening of the Sanctus.

The big choir, too, sings gloriously over a wide range of dynamic. Climaxes are overwhelming but with Christian Thieleman always creating supple phrasing and expressive use of light and shade. There is a wonderful pianissimo before the “Et resurrexit tertia die”; in the Gloria, the words “miserere nobis” and “qui tollis peccata mundi” are touchingly intense, while at its climax Beethoven’s vibrant syncopations and modulations are urgently conveyed. Detail is finely realised, yet one watches Thielemann’s simple conducting style moulding the flowing phrasing without over-dramatisation of gesture. Video director Michael Beyer covers the performance most effectively and above all lets us watch the faces of the dedicated performers.

This version comes into direct competition with Karajan’s celebrated performance with the Wiener Singverein and BPO, recorded at the Salzburg Festival of 1979. He has Tomowa-Sintow and van Dam among his soloists, which Thielemann’s group, while singing well as a team, cannot quite match. Krassimira Stoyanova sings ardently but displays a close vibrato at times; even so, she blends her voice well with the impressive and often very moving mezzo, Elīna Garanča. The men are both good but perhaps not quite so memorable, although Franz-Josef Selig contributes considerable intensity to the Agnus Dei. The performance is at its finest in the Benedictus, with Matthias Wollong’s ethereal violin solo perfectly balanced with the clarinets and bassoons.

“From the heart—may it go to the heart!” Beethoven wrote on the autograph score of his supreme masterpiece. The present performance ends in an intense silence, with the audience undoubtedly remembering the bombardment of Dresden during the last weeks of the Second World War, which this concert commemorates. Perhaps we too, as listeners and watchers, can match their feelings, remembering the Blitz which so devastated our cities earlier in the war, Coventry in particular.

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.

Simon Thompson
MusicWeb International, March 2011

This outstanding DVD automatically takes its place towards the very top rank of recordings of Beethoven’s great masterpiece. As well as top-notch musical values it also has the virtue of enshrining a very special occasion. Every year since 1951 the Dresden Staatskapelle and State Opera Chorus have performed a requiem to commemorate the destruction of the city in Allied bombing raids in February 1945. No applause is given at these solemn concerts, which end with a minute’s silence. The anniversary of the bombing, 13th and 14th February, was also the date chosen for the re-opening of the Semperoper in 1985. Hence this film of the 2010 concert marks both the 65th anniversary of the bombing and the 25th anniversary of the re-opening of the Semperoper. The conductor for the occasion, Christian Thielemann, was also marking a special occasion as he had only just been announced as the orchestra’s new principal, a post he will take up in 2012. Hence a sense of the palpably special, even the unrepeatable, hangs over the whole performance, and everyone involved raises their game to an extraordinary level.

The lack of applause adds to the sacral element of the performance, something from which this great masterpiece can only benefit. The Missa Solemnis had been chosen for the occasion before by Blomstedt in 1977 and 1979, Colin Davis in 1993 and Fabio Luisi in 2005 when the work was picked for the official reopening of the Frauenkirche. Its scale and intensity is ideal for a solemn occasion like this one. At the beginning Thielemann and the soloists walk onto the stage to complete silence and at the end, after a long pause, they lead the minute’s silence. It is interesting, by the way, to see Mikhail Gorbachev in the royal box, having just been awarded the Dresden Peace Prize.

The atmosphere grants a special air to the already excellent musical values. The Staatskapelle Dresden has an unparalleled heritage among European orchestras—Karajan once compared their sound to burnished gold. Their playing adds extra grandeur and beauty to Beethoven’s already extraordinary orchestration. The brass and winds, in particular, exude special authority, while the timpani are forceful without being allowed to dominate. Leader, Matthias Wollong, gives an intensely spiritual solo during the Benedictus and the explosive climaxes, such as the start of the Gloria, never become cloudy. You need only hear those majestic opening chords of the Kyrie to understand that you are in for something great. The Staatsoper chorus are also on outstanding form, razor sharp in articulation and pitching, never allowing the multiple layers of the writing to swamp or drown out individual lines. The fugue on Et vitam venturi is a model of fine choral singing. The soloists, too, are outstanding, especially the women. Krassimira Stoyanova soars with transcendent ease above the stage, blessing the whole quartet from above, while Elina Garanča is outstandingly characterful, rich and lustrous with an extraordinary grace to the bottom of her range. Michael Schade is warm and intense, while Franz-Josef Selig sings with richness and authority, though the microphone balance doesn’t flatter him, making him harder to hear when all four are singing. Their finest moment is the quartet on Et incarnatus est, where they conjure a sound of truly holy beauty.

The hero of the whole performance is Thielemann himself. He has been widely recognised as the leading exponent of the great German tradition of, say, Furtwängler and Karajan, and he leads the performance with unimpeachable authority. Right from the opening chords it is clear that he is shaping the music in his own style and he is entirely in touch with the grandeur and majesty of the score and of the occasion. His is undeniably a big-boned approach, quite some distance from that of Gardiner and Herreweghe, more in the mould of Levine, but to my ears that suits this music wonderfully. He controls the big moments with assurance and allows the Sanctus and Benedictus to unfold from within themselves. Perhaps the martial outbursts at the end of the Agnus Dei lack the nth degree of passion, but this is a small complaint against a performance of such stature.

The DTS sound quality is excellent and the camera direction is outstanding, pointing the eye to precisely where you would want it to be and making the viewer feel as though he is experiencing the work from the inside. There are also plenty of beautiful shots of the auditorium, as well as the individual players and singers, and it is fascinating to watch Thielemann at work at such close range. I have no qualms, then, in commending this DVD at the highest level. It will have a long and happy life on my shelf, sitting comfortably alongside recordings from Gardiner, Karajan and Levine, and more than holding its own in the comparison.

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