Beethoven Missa Solemnis

There can be few works as monumental in scale and conception as Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis and it was fitting that this work was given a majestic interpretation by the combined forces of the Tonbridge Philharmonic Society Choir and Orchestra at the weekend. It deals with big issues such as war and peace, and big ideas such as Divine glory and the insignificance of man.

From the opening solid chords of the Kyrie the Choir was in warm and expressive mood. The lovely rich rounded sounds of the basses and the ‘altos led into an equally impressive solo quartet. Maureen Brathwaite’s fluently soaring voice was particularly effective in the sanctus. Alison Kettlewell’s velvety ‘alto was well counterpointed with Richard Coxon’s heroic tenor. Bass Simon Neal added suitable gravitas to complete a fine quartet.

Coxon’s magic spell was cast during a dark and forboding Crucifixus – here the Choir was wonderfully hushed before the joy of the resurrection. Conductor Robin Morrish drawing out the sombre hues of much of this music. In the faster movements he urged his forces on, sometimes encouraging them, sometimes sustaining them in the pages of incredibly high soprano tessitura. The occasional hesitation by the chorus took some of the drive out of some of the fugal writing, but they were carefully balanced and precise nonetheless.

Notable in the Orchestra were the flutes, leading a woodwind ensemble that seemed more at ease after the interval, particularly in the Benedictus. Here too, leader Penelope Howard’s solo violin obbligato showed her usual sensitivity for line and dynamic nuance. Morrish drew some incredibly quiet sounds from his orchestra in the dramatic Agnus Dei as well as coaxing his combined forces to a marvellously climactic Dona Nobis.

The Missa Solemnis is undoubtedly a challenge to amateur forces, even those as good as this, but it is reassuring that generations of performers seek out its message of hope, as it still has much to say to our 21st Century lives.

Adrian Pitts