The expectations run high when there is a new Suzuki release with his Bach Collegium Japan. It is really hard to find a weak performance among their recorded output. Even Suzuki’s solo recitals (himself one of the most important organists and harpsichordists) are distinguished.
The Missa Solemnis represents the pinnacle of achievement in Western classical music, yet a work that is not performed that often. It is arguably one of Beethoven’s masterpieces, if not his ultimate masterpiece. Both past and contemporary critics have praised it as one of the most beautiful works ever written, with Beethoven himself, back in 1822, calling it the greatest work he had composed.
Suzuki’s performance is one of the finest performances on period instruments and in fact, for me it now goes to the top of the list for this kind of approach. The style of the soloists is rooted in historically-informed practice (HIP): do not expect big, operatic singing since the voices here stem from the oratorio tradition. Having said that, compared to a few other HIP accounts, they are not rigid at all. Suzuki allows for more freedom, something that is evident from the opening Kyrie, where each voice seems to gradually rise from the darkest depths of our existence. What is really noteworthy is their character, so different in colour but perfectly integrated, as if we were dealing with instruments of the same orchestra instead of separate vocalists. This is evident both in the louder parts of the Gloria and in the Credo, as well as in the softer passages of the Benedictus and Agnus Dei. As for the choir, despite being very small in size, their contribution is outstanding and never subdued. In fact, there is an ethereal quality in their singing. Listen to the perfect blend in the opening of the Dona nobis pacem — this is really the voice of angels. Or going back to the Gloria, you can only admire their perfect precision in the fugues or their hymn-like singing in Et incarnatus est of the Credo.
The detail of Suzuki’s conducting is obvious throughout. The orchestral pianissimos, the hushed tremolandi before the big outburst in the Sanctus which are near-transparent, the string’s antiphonal effects captured successfully on record. And at last, here we have a period performance of the Benedictus where the violin solo doesn’t sound pale nor screechy. On the contrary, it has a fuller tone compared to other period instrument solos, the expression of emotion more evident.
When it comes to the louder sections, the brutal force Suzuki draws from the orchestra is especially vivid, an effect mainly caused by the timpani which are louder here than in most performances, their rhythm clearer and much better recorded with just the ideal reverberation. One could sample them menacing at the beginning of the Gloria, underlining the synced rhythmic drive of the Credo and excelling in the military fanfares of the finale.
Speaking of the finale, this is perhaps the highlight of the recording. Suzuki does not pull back and allows plenty of passion to come through — something most HIP recordings avoid — with the vocalists soaring, taking perhaps more liberties than usual, and the choir on top form with its aforementioned ethereal qualities. This is one of the most spiritual accounts of the Agnus Dei on record. And all these thanks to the sensitivity of Suzuki who doesn’t imitate the performance of other HIP accounts but follows his own distinct approach. Listen, for example, to the final notes of this sublime work: Where other conductors simply rush through or emphasize the dramatic effect of the closing pages, Suzuki slows down and treats it like a pastoral setting, an effect both moving and fitting to Beethoven’s earlier works. When others try to make a point of the terror in the finale, Suzuki shapes it as a pure affirmation of faith. In Suzuki’s hands the struggles that have preceded end in a bliss of light. This is a moving and masterful account that needs to be heard.
Beethoven, Missa Solemnis
Bach Collegium Japan
Masaaki Suzuki (conductor)
PS1. Since we are talking about such a big work, the comparison with other recordings is inevitable. Gardiner’s last account is more dramatic, faster in tempo, with a choir that sounds bigger. Herreweghe’s second recording is more introspective, stoical, the orchestra more imposing and equally spiritual as the Suzuki recording. For a non-HIP version with a modern orchestra then Levine with the Vienna Philharmonic, three large choirs and an all-star set of soloists remains for me unsurpassed and is a desert island recording (and even though romantic in approach, not at all on the slower side: Levine keeps the tempo flowing in some of the fugal passages in the Gloria and Credo, which is a feat considering the number of choirs involved). However, Suzuki would be my first choice for a HIP recording, offering the best of both worlds by respecting the period performance tradition without sacrificing emotion.
PS2. 24bit FLAC purchased from eClassical. It seems that eClassical offers studio FLAC files for brand new releases, such as this one, at a discounted price.