NEW YORK — A friend writes: “Where does the world go when Beethoven solemn mass need visuals??? Well, respite was on the way.
The unrest that beset the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Thursday night performance at the Kimmel Center in solemn mass — storm-related surges, deeply controversial computer-generated imagery by video artist Refik Anadol — were absent from Carnegie Hall’s Friday release. It was here that listeners had the chance to hear what the orchestra, musical director Yannick Nézet-Séguin and his quartet of soloists really had to tell us in a music-only presentation of the gargantuan choral work, provocative and endlessly layered Beethoven that, in the right kind of performance, can challenge your worldview in the best possible way.
Scheduled before the lockdown as the culmination of the Philadelphia Beethoven Symphony cycle, the concert was postponed, rescheduled and became another jam-packed Carnegie Hall event – part of the parallel artistic life of the conductor and the orchestra, here in what many Philadelphians call “our most interesting suburb”.
Unlike Nézet-Séguin’s speed demon, Beethoven Symphony No. 9 in February at Carnegie Hall which was not always friendly to singers, this performance showed him releasing the music more than managing it, aiming higher but exerting less overt control over the room than during Wolfgang’s performance Sawallisch in 2001 with the orchestra. Unlike the lean, historically authentic performances often heard in Europe, this Beethoven sought no resolution in his many ill-fitting pieces, but was tall, bracing, sometimes beautiful, sometimes prickly—more of an existential experience than a religious one. More than usual, faith and disillusion coexisted.
Beginning with the low, slow tempo of the opening ‘Kyrie’, the elemental nature of the performance kept reminding you that Beethoven was not a god of music, but an angsty, argumentative individual who tried to reconcile the spiritual possibilities of his inner life with the inhumanity of his outer world.
And aren’t we all these days?
A key moment in the performance was concertmaster David Kim’s treatment of the famous violin solo during the “Benedictus”. It was not a comforting voice from above, but a plea for humanity, a large part of the earth, and it was one of the most eloquent pieces I have ever heard from him. .
More important was the special dramatic undercurrent in the final section of miss one, in which pleas of “Grant us peace” are often interrupted by militaristic drumming – a battle of the elements that reaches no real resolution. So-called war music – not the best Beethoven had to offer – is something some former conductors secretly admit they would love to cut. On Friday, this section became crucial. What I heard was Beethoven throwing up his arms at the desperation of human self-destruction that has been such a constant in history, and the only solace is a battered God helping us sift through our inner rubble.
The Philadelphia Symphonic Choir seemed transformed, under the direction of Amanda Quist, from the band that sang a masked Handel Messiah at the Kimmel Center in December. The usual weak points of a choir – the tenor section and the pianissimos – were the main strengths, especially the pianissimos.
Curiously, the pure-blooded, lyrically inclined soloists – Jennifer Rowley, Karen Cargill, Rodrick Dixon and Eric Owens, mostly familiar from Nézet-Séguin’s other releases – weren’t spread across the front of the stage but clustered at the left of the stage. Clarity between individual voices was not in the cards. Instead, the quartet was a towering mass of high-vibrato sound, framed above by Rowley’s formidable soprano and below by Owens’ nervous bass. Heard from the balcony, the soloists somehow created an acoustic that, in softer entries, seemed to spring from an alternate world – a reminder that such alternate worlds are there for discovery.
Additional performances in Philadelphia: Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Kimmel Center. Tickets cost between $10 and $170. philorch.org215-893-1999.