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Norrington expresses humanity of Beethoven mass

Boston Symphony Orchestra
Conducted by Roger Norrington.
Symphony Hall.
Feb. 27.

By Allsion Marino
Staff Reporter

's 1824 premiere, the sopranos pleaded unsuccessfully with Beethoven to revise a section of the Fugue in the Credo, which called for the theme to enter on a high B-flat. Clearly, conductor Roger Norrington and the BSO took on a challenge with this work.

, but with a briefer final cadence, which left me a bit uneasy about Beethoven's assessment of humanity as I went to pick up my jacket from the coat check.

Struggle also characterized the four soloists. While each individually sang with character and sensitivity, the group was not balanced. The mezzo-soprano, Sarah Walker, and the bass, Alastair Miles, were difficult to hear when the rest of the quartet, tenor John Aler and soprano Amanda Halgrimson, was also singing.

Many of the most demanding parts in the Missa are sung by the chorus, and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, directed by John Oliver (of MIT Concert Choir fame), was superb. They articulated every `K' in the Kyrie, brought the audience to the energetic fugal climax at the end of the Gloria, sustained power and grace through the endurance-testing Credo, and supported the soloists in the Sanctus. In the final moments of the mass (the end of the expansive Agnus Dei), when the soloists, chorus, and orchestra clamored against each other with cries of "peace" and war, the chorus sang with such urgency and fervor that no-one could question their sincerity. They took to heart Beethoven's instructions: "From the heart -- may it go to the heart." Their energy and intensity made the piece come alive.

On Saturday, the chorus, the soloists, the conductor, and the piece itself reinforced the advantages of live performance. The Missa Solemnis is a dramatic work, a mass, written to be witnessed, not simply heard; at Symphony Hall you can see the performers' expressions, watch them strain and struggle with an immediacy and intensity irreproducible on any digitally remixed CD.

Conductor Norrington, in recognition of this fact and the Missa's tremendous power, added an intermission with the expressed intent of bringing out the mass's human side and making it more accessible, dividing the uplifting Kyrie and Gloria from the darker, more serious Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. This indeed made the work easier to fathom, though I still found the concert more of an awesome spectacle than an enjoyable evening of entertainment. As I'm sure Beethoven intended, the Missa Solemnis will never be a "fun" or "whimsical" concert. Norrington allowed the audience to connect with the emotions in the mass, and I was haunted by an unsettling feeling for several hours after the final chord.