Beethoven Missa Solemnis

This all-Beethoven programme made an impressive start to Tonbridge Philharmonic Society’s new Season at Tonbridge School Chapel on Saturday. Under the incisive direction of Matthew Willis, the three items reflected human emotions as relevant today as they were in Beethoven’s time. The first decades of the nineteenth century were also an era of political turmoil and fear of violence, against which his music embodied faithfulness and joy, grief, revenge and pity, mercy and the longing for peace.

The Orchestra tackled the Overture Leonore No3 with energy and attention to dynamic detail. This was orchestral playing of a very high order, from the beautifully crafted ‘conversation’ between the flute and strings to the exhilarating crescendo from pianissimo to fortissimo and the spine-tingling off-stage trumpet calls giving hope of Florestan’s release.

Less well-known was the dramatic concert aria Ah! Perfido sung by Soprano Helena Dix. In a performance spotlighting the virtuoso singer’s passion, dynamic range and persuasive engagement with her audience, she acted the part of a ‘woman scorned’ with absolute commitment.  The Orchestra accompanied her sensitively, with some beautiful playing from the woodwind section.

The tour de force that is the Missa Solemnis was the result of four years of planning and composition by Beethoven, from 1819 to it first performance in 1823.  In 2015, this performance was the culmination of weeks of preparation and hours of rehearsal.  Robin Morrish’s excellent programme notes provided a valuable insight into the words of the Mass.  The Chorus rose magnificently to the considerable challenges of the work, and on the whole the sopranos survived the relentless heights of their part, especially in the Quoniam, but were tiring by the Et vitam venturi section. The opening Kyrie was well-controlled, with the singers supplicating for mercy. The Society’s remarkable tenor section excelled in the Quoniam, while the altos and basses gave their all the whole evening. There is nothing as moving as pianissimo choral singing, and this was achieved with great effect in et homo factus est and et sepultus est.

Leader Susan Skone-James provided a beautifully tender violin solo in Qui venit, and throughout the work the Orchestra never overwhelmed the Chorus despite the large number of musicians involved.  The Quartet of operatic soloists cut through the huge corporate sound with ease.  Soprano Helena Dix once more demonstrated her breathtaking technique and glorious ethereal floating entries; astonishingly powerful mezzo Linda Finnie kept an enviably steady line;  tenor Paul Austin Kelly sang with assurance and spot-on entries, and baritone Lukas Kargl gave a poignant interpretation of miserere nobis in the Agnus Dei.  All the soloists performed with conviction and poise, while Matthew Willis held all his forces together with expert guidance.  

Ruth Langridge