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3MBS MARATHON: BEETHOVEN Mass in C

by Julie McErlain

What a fantastic celebration of the anniversary of Beethoven’s 250th birthday was programmed by 3MBS Fine Music Melbourne at the Recital Centre. What a superb array of soloists and ensembles were featured in six major concerts – including Melbourne Chamber Orchestra, the Australian, Flinders and Goldner String Quartets, Arcadia Winds and Ensemble Liaison, plus a celebrated list of instrumental and vocal soloists. The additional Youth Program, which offered a musical Birthday Party for children, as well as an afternoon Masterclass Series, was a creditable offering in this quality program. This was the 7th MBS Marathon event, broadcast and streamed live, with brilliant technical planning.

Julie Houghton delivered a warm official welcome, and Loretta Perkins opened the first concert with a reading from selections of Beethoven’s letters, an insightful and engaging link preceding each concert in the program. This intimately connected the audience with the mind and heart of Beethoven and was warmly received by listeners.

Completed and premiered in 1807, the Mass in C is the first of Beethoven’s two fairly conventional settings for the liturgical texts of the Mass. What strikes us is the almost secular sound, huge symphonic chords and Romantic expression, intense crescendos and abrupt climaxes in a dense and colourful world of sound. From the low, dark, bass beginnings, the 60-voice Royal Philharmonic Choir ascended with much power, with an assertive dramatic presence, skilfully voicing the rapid onslaught of passionate crescendos and dynamic contrasts. The power that came from the choir belied its true size, showing mature and confident balanced voices, with a wise staging of central male voices and female sections to the sides. Conductor Andrew Wailes inspires and insists on great attention to detail, honest interpretation and enunciation of text, balance in choral and instrumental accompaniment of the four solo voices, and passionate contrasts of feeling and tone colour.

The Gloria allowed for the richly colourful punctuation and word-painting to have prominence – “And on Earth, peace’’ felt with extreme softnesses, not with loss of pace nor conviction, and “We praise thee” bringing the brass and timpani to the foreground. “Have mercy upon us” was performed with more restrained tempo, gentleness, beauty and humility with the prayerfulness of the contrasting minor key. A highlight was the gentle vocal repetition of the text “miserere”, a single pitch repeated, with the sensitive accompaniment of pizzicato basses. The ensemble was splendid in exuding triumph and power in the glory of the Amen, with soloists skilfully leading the contrapuntal lines with dynamic pitch and clarity.

The discipline, blend and projection from the RMP choir excelled in the opening lines of“Credo”, as particularly solid sopranos added excitement and power to the chords. Beethoven’s towering, dramatic chords were given the full colour and emotion desired, and the impressive soprano section added security, drama and intensity. Soprano Zara Barrett added almost Wagnerian stature with her golden solos, although at times her vibrato could be considered a little wide in the interpretation of religious works. The strength and lustre of tenor Henry Choo also projected well above the combined choir and 3MBS Orchestra’s expressive passages, with some remarkable breath control gaining our admiration. It was in the soft and more spiritual texts for the quartet that mezzo Shakira Dugan and baritone Nicholas Dinopoulos showed their musicality, technical ability, clarity of line and diction, and gorgeous tones, well blended in unison or a capella sections, (notably in the Sanctus – “Benedictus qui venit”) but not given as prominent a showing when Beethoven’s writing took them to their lowest, darkest but softer notes. The performance of the final lines of “Credo” was emotionally rousing, as intricate contrapuntal lines between soloists and individual orchestral instruments were accurate and pitch perfect.

It is in the Sanctus that Beethoven shows less symphonic grandeur, and a more mellow and reverential score allows a lighter prayerfulness and spirituality. The extreme contrasts of volume still punctuated where the text required, but solo woodwind instruments held delightful conversation with the soloists’ phrases.

The final part, Kyrie, with a text demanding piety, humility and mercy, was nevertheless given the full symphonic powerful entrance by the full ensemble, triple fortissimo, as if Beethoven was still going to shake the heaven and earth. Only with “miserere nobis” and “dona nobis pacem” did he show more sorrowful word-painting. Both unaccompanied choir and vocal soloists had the chance to shine with their musicality and gorgeous contrasting tones. Wailes kept the tempo forward, keeping conviction and strength, still maintaining  beauty and reverence. French horn and woodwinds added heavenly colours. Seen as an innovation by some, the last sixteen bars of this Agnus Dei adopted a new language of peace and repose, with a moving and more spiritual resolution in the fading cadence. Quite a contrast to the explosive opening.

There were spontaneous shouts of “Bravo!” for this grand opening by an accomplished choir, orchestra, soloists and masterful conductor with an exemplary, exciting and heartfelt quality performance.

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Julie McErlain reviewed the performance of Beethoven’s Mass in C given by the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic Choir and 3MBS Orchestra, conducted by Andrew Wailes, as part of the 3MBS Marathon Beethoven Festival at the Melbourne Recital Centre on February 23, 2020.

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