If any work deserves superlatives heaped on it, it's Beethoven's Solemn Mass in D, Op. 123, better known as the Missa Solemnis. Beethoven himself thought it was his greatest work; it certainly transcends the boundaries of liturgy as perhaps no other setting of the Catholic Ordinary does. (Even Bach's more highly favored B Minor Mass uses borrowings from his earlier cantatas and was only finished after a two decade interruption.)
Lasting an hour and 20 minutes, the Missa contains Beethoven's richest orchestration beneath nearly constantly demanding choral and vocal quartet singing. It is a companion work to the contemporaneously written and much more popular Ninth Symphony (1817-1824). Unlike the Ninth, it is infrequently performed, ostensibly owing to its highly challenging choral writing. The ISO's only previous Missa was in May 1987 by John Nelson as his final subscription concert before leaving the orchestra "for sunnier shores" (his parting with the orchestra entailed no love lost).
Friday's ISO performance of the Missa featured guest conductor Hans Graf, soloists Cynthia Sieden, soprano; Julie Boulianne, mezzo-soprano; tenor Colin Balzer; bass-baritone Nathan Berg; and Eric Stark's Indianapolis Symphonic Choir. ISO concertmaster Zach De Pue deserves mention for his well played solo work throughout the sublime, 16-minute "Benedictus."
Throughout the various parts of the Missa, we hear moments of bewitching beauty in which voices and instruments meld: In the Gloria we hear such a moment at the "Domine Fili unigenite Jesu Christe" ("O Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son"). In the Credo, we hear "Et incarnatus est de Spiritu Sancto" depicted by the fluttering flute and anticipating Wagner's "Forest Murmurs" from his Siegfried of decades later. The Credo's final simutaneous upscale/downscale figures with the chorus delivering a soft "Amen" are beyond merely lovely. Then, in the final part, the Agnus Dei ("Lamb of God"), after projecting angst in B minor, opens into a broadly thematic, D major "Dona nobis Pacem" ("Grant us peace").
But peace doesn't come easily as Beethoven introduces "war drums" and offstage trumpets in an expanded section depicting turmoil and strife (a "device" he got from Haydn). The "Pacem" theme is nearly transformed into "And He shall Reign for ever and ever" reminding us of Handel's "Hallelujah!" Then "Grant us peace" as the mass ends. It is regrettable that one must always turn to recordings to experience the beauty of "Beethoven's greatest composition."
Though perhaps the singing and playing in some recordings do surpass this one, the live experience cannot be duplicated. The approximately 850 patrons who showed up got as inspirational a treat as they could have imagined. Here's hoping that Saturday's turnout will be larger. Oct. 9; Hilbert Circle Theatre