Washington Cathedral is a hospitable setting for the most moving passages in Beethoven's Missa Solemnis.
Yesterday afternoon as violas, cellos, double basses and woodwinds from the National Symphony Orchestra played the prelude to the Benedictus, with the deep pedal of the cathedral organ undergirding one of the most exquisite moments in all music, it was hard to think of a place where that music could sound more affecting in its singular beauty.
However, in the fiendishly fast fugues that close the Gloria and Credo, the cathedral made it impossible to hear clearly either the vocal or instrumental lines. This may have been a blessing since there are few passages in choral literature that come as close to being unsingable as these.
Paul Callaway conducted the performance, with the Cathedral Choral Society and a quartet of expert vocal soloists joined by Andres Archila's violin in the Benedictus. Reilly Lewis provided the impressive organ part.
The performance was intensely musical, thanks to Callaway's authority in tempos, dynamics and control, and, for the most part, in the response he drew from his musicians. The chorus sounded fresh and unafraid in the face of the inhuman demands, though they were at times buried by either the orchestra or the reverberant spaces. From the Sanctus to the end of the work, the greater part of the sound and fury being past, the performance became an untroubled joy.
The soloists, each of whom contributed particular beauty, were Esther Hinds, soprano; Eunice Alberts, contralto; Gene Tucker, tenor, and Philip Booth, bass.