Haitink's CSO 'Missa Solemnis' achieves eloquence through directness

Bernard Haitink

Bernard Haitink (Terrence Antonio James, Chicago Tribune / October 26, 2012)

Whatever the reason behind Bernard Haitink's mysterious cancellation of his Chicago Symphony Orchestra appearances the previous week, the beloved Dutch conductor was back in commanding form Thursday night at Symphony Center to make good on his scheduled performance of Beethoven's "Missa Solemnis."

Has ever a non-religious composer written a more powerful or personal statement of belief in God and the basic human need for hope in the face of death? It was Beethoven's wish that the solemn mass preserve religious feeling in all who perform and hear it – hence his inscription across the opening page of the Kyrie, "From the heart – may it go to the heart."

That the "Missa Solemnis" still sounds contemporary, nearly 190 years after it was composed, and will always sound contemporary, is because it doesn't turn away from some very hard truths. Beethoven's craggy monument can calmly pray for peace at the end because it has paid the price of struggling for spiritual assurance, even as the martial rumble of drums and trumpets sounds in the distance.

Haitink understands this, and understands, too, that no successful realization of this 80-minute spiritual journey from majestic invocation to hard-won serenity can be achieved without a firm grasp of pulse, span, mood, transition and, above all, structure – always Haitink's strong suit. At 83, he appears to retain the stamina and concentration of a conductor half his age.

He views this hugely diverse work as a whole, presenting its five long movements with symphonic breadth and grandeur while papering over its sometimes awkward shifts of musical character. But simplicity and warmth are there, too: a refreshingly plain-spoken view of a masterpiece too often spoiled by conductors who self-consciously strive for sublimity but who just wind up sounding ponderous. With Haitink, detail and conception were magnificently in balance.

The chorus part may well be the most difficult in the repertory, demanding the utmost in discipline, musicianship, range, flexibility and textual understanding. Director Duain Wolfe's 83 voices, singing in the Germanized Latin Beethoven's audiences would have recognized, met this supreme challenge head on. There was no audible strain, because these singers are used to working at the score's limits of possibility. The sopranos sang beautifully, and the tenors' exultant cry of "Et incarnatus est" was just one of many moments that made the performance so moving.

There was also a remarkable quartet of vocal soloists, perhaps not so evenly matched as some teams of singers, but fully at one with Haitink's purposes. Erin Wall soared radiantly, with full, steady, lustrous tone, even in passages where Beethoven asks the near-impossible of the soprano soloist. Hardly less impressive was Anthony Dean Griffey, who brought a big, distinctively imploring sound to the hugely demanding tenor part.

Mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink and bass-baritone Hanno Muller-Brachmann also upheld their end of things with musical and expressive assurance, particularly in their heartfelt contributions to the "Agnus dei" section.

The Chicago Symphony musicians came through for their former principal conductor like the world-traveled champs we know them to be. The woodwinds intertwined beautifully, and concertmaster Robert Chen was his usual superb self in the long violin solo that weaves its way through the "Benedictus"; the effect was as heavenly as that of the white doves hovering in Renaissance religious paintings. Guest principal timpanist Michael Israelievitch, of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, sounded the drums of war with a fine array of attack and color.

The program will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave.; $34-$260; 312-294-3000, cso.org.

jvonrhein@tribune.com

Twitter: @jvonrhein

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