More than perhaps any other mass setting, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis seems to pose questions of its conductor and of its audience. What is played at the beginning will affect how we hear the closing minutes: will they be a consolation or a cry for help?
Here, the playing Gianandrea Noseda drew forth from the BBC Philharmonic at the opening was insistent but smooth, in a way that made the choir’s calls for mercy hint at a quiet desperation. The singers of the Hallé Choir and the Manchester Chamber Choir were on fresh-sounding, precise form from the very start. Between them and the orchestra stood a quartet of vocal soloists featuring the gleaming soprano of Camilla Nylund and the burly tenor of Stuart Skelton. The organ supplied a floor-shaking bass line.
It was not all smoothness. Noseda drove the Gloria hard and, after an Et incarnatus est accompanied by tender, birdsong-like flute, the Crucifixus brought jagged chords that jumped out at the listener. But again and again, when the text returned to the ideas of mercy and faith, Noseda ensured his forces reverted to that almost obsessively velvety, sustained tone. These supplicants were not hectoring their god, but they weren’t going away either.
Gordan Trajkovic wove a sweet-sounding violin solo around the singers in the Benedictus, and when martial trumpets intruded into the Agnus Dei they were quickly vanquished. The final pleas of Dona nobis pacem – grant us peace – closed the work with the mood of desperation now tempered with acceptance.