Some pieces of music are guaranteed to be events, no matter who performs them or how. Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis certainly belongs in that category, and the New York Philharmonic’s recent presentation under Kurt Masur in Avery Fisher Hall was more than properly festive. I would even go so far as to say that it was among the most imposing interpretations of this extraordinary score I’ve ever heard. On no other major late piece did Beethoven labor so long or more intensely, and a great performance must reflect that passionate work process without making an audience excessively conscious of it. It’s a tricky balancing feat to pull off, but the Missa Solemnis must never sound easy; by the same token, only virtuoso musicians can face its ferocious challenges and hope to produce an adequate result.
Masur, the orchestra, the New York Choral Artists, the American Boychoir, the vocal soloists (Christine Brewer, Florence Quivar, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Peter Rose) – everyone involved not only was up to the job but seemed to understand exactly why he or she was engaged in it. Beethoven scribbled, “From the heart / May it go again to the heart!” at the top of the Missa’s first manuscript page, a fervent wish that seldom comes true as readily as it did on this occasion.