A lapsed Catholic, Beethoven was never that big on devotional music. His Missa solemnis (“solemn mass”) is one of the few exceptions to a musical output that was, up to that point late in his career, mostly secular. Weirdly, though, it is the work featured in what became the composer’s most famous portrait, by Joseph Stieler—-a testament to how closely the mass came to be associated with Beethoven’s image, along with crazy hair and ear horns.
The National Symphony Orchestra’s programming of the Missa is, in spirit, a continuation of last season’s “Music of Budapest, Prague, and Vienna” concert series, which focused on famous composers’ less performed (if no less celebrated) vocal works. Unlike last season’s inspired Fidelio, Beethoven’s lone opera, or the outstanding Bluebeard’s Castle, this production is more workmanlike. It hits all the right notes, even moves you at moments, without leaving a lasting impression.
It’s not that the presentation suffers from any deep deficiencies. On Thursday, the horns were sloppy at times, but what else is new? Christoph Eschenbach led some jarring transitions and exaggerated tempo changes, particularly in the opening Kyrie, but by now, Kennedy Center audiences are used to the maestro’s seemingly impulsive, though heartfelt, conducting style.
The four soloists were individually terrific, particularly soprano Erin Wall and tenor Richard Croft, although in quartets mostly smothered one another—-bass Kwangchul Youn could barely be heard through most of the performance until he got to relish a brief solo near the end. The Choral Arts Society’s backing chorus was, as usual, excellent, particularly on a feisty run echoing Wall in third movement. Though, also as usual, they hid too much behind their songbooks.
The high point is the second movement, the Gloria, an exultant jolt of energy that truly pops. It’s moments like this that the orchestra—-even the horns—-comes across as a well-functioning organic whole. But that energy level drops in the subsequent Credo, Sanctus and Benedictus, and eventually some listeners may start wishing they’d realized there was no intermission, so they could have used the bathroom before taking their seats. The morass is interrupted by a lovely, lyrical violin solo by concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef who acts almost like a fifth vocalist, accentuated by the way her whole head vibrates when she plays.
Friday’s performance met an enthusiastic response from a tour bus full of cheerful priests-in-training from Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, sent, one told me, on assignment for a seminary class. The rest of the audience was more subdued. It’s hard to say why, considering the able musicianship of the NSO and Choral Arts Society. Perhaps it’s hard to live up to the legend of such a grand and weighty work. Maybe a bathroom break would have helped.
The NSO peforms Missa solemnis again on Saturday, Nov. 3 at 8 p.m. at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. $10-$85. (800) 444-1324.