We’re sometimes led to think that musical masterpieces of the past fit partly into molds: sonata form, symphony, concerto. In fact, however, many of them are sui generis, remembered less for exemplifying a genre than for exploding it.
Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis” is an example so ungainly that it has only a tenuous foothold in the standard repertoire: not exactly a rarity, but certainly less beloved than other genre-busting pieces, such as Verdi’s Requiem, or Brahms’s. Is it a religious work? A personal meditation? Uneven, discursive, inspired, all of the above? Julian Wachner and the Washington Chorus offered no easy answers Sunday afternoon at the Kennedy Center. They simply presented the work, quirks and all, in an ultimately powerful performance.
Wachner, the group’s music director and conductor, didn’t try to paper over the work’s oddities. If anything, he highlighted its contrasts: the tension, for instance, between the quartet of soloists — individual voices in an essentially formal presentation — and the massed chorus, huge yet capable of an immediate intimacy. Toward the end of the opening “Kyrie” movement, after the ornate tangle of voices had meshed in tapestry, the unison chorus quietly emerged with the “son” in the word “eleison,” vivid and briefly free of the trappings of the orchestra that surrounded it.
It wasn’t a reading that necessarily aimed at beauty — fittingly enough, given the work’s inherent thorniness. The chorus’s tenor section often sounded strident and forced, baying out open-throated notes in their upper register on entrances — an approach that finally made sense in the final movement, the “Agnus Dei,” when their sound contrasted forcefully, in the “miserere,” with the warm, earthy bass of the soloist Kevin Thompson. (Thompson, substituting for an indisposed Morris Robinson, is a local talent with a burgeoning international opera career.)
The sense of unevenness and individuality extended to the four soloists; Thompson was the urbane fundament to a varied quartet. Beethoven was arguably not a natural writer for the voice and was completely deaf by the time he composed this work; the result is challenging music that sometimes flows beautifully and sometimes taxes the singers. This was most true, on Sunday, for the soprano and tenor: Julia Sophie Wagner’s shining soprano was, at one point in the “Sanctus,” forced to a near-scream, while Vale Rideout’s distinctive, baritonal tenor sounded strained for part of the performance. Rideout is clearly doing something right, though, because he sang his way into the piece and delivered his best work in the final movement. Daniela Mack provided a firm, clear mezzo.
Although this is a wild tangle of a piece, it elicited one of the most physically contained performances I can remember seeing from Wachner. Usually a conductor of big, emphatic gestures, he was unusually economical in his movements Sunday, and more authoritative, although I didn’t always hear from the orchestra the effects of the gestures I could see. He conducted graphically during the violin solo in the “Benedictus” but refrained from the superfluous gesture of conducting the soloist herself — Nurit Bar-Josef, the concertmaster of the National Symphony Orchestra and of Sunday’s pickup orchestra, who occasionally drifted slightly flat but played radiantly in one of Beethoven’s gifts to violinists and those who love to hear them. Wachner also emphasized the off-kilter quality of some instrumental passages — in, for instance, the Sanctus (“osanna”) and Agnus Dei — which lurched lustily rather than lilted.
A flaw of the “Missa Solemnis” is rhetorical: Its movements often trail off as though unable to sustain the weight of their own arguments with a decisive conclusion, and its end is one of its weaker parts. Credit, then, to Wachner and the robust, well-prepared Washington Chorus for offering a reading in which this final movement, with its orchestral interleavings, seemed to make sense, not necessarily as a culmination, but simply because there was no more to be said.