Weather Updates

Haitink, CSO, chorus, soloists go to the heart in ‘Missa solemnis’



◆ 8 p.m. Saturday

◆ Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan

◆ Tickets, $40-$225

◆ (312) 294-3000;

Updated: November 28, 2012 6:09AM

It’s the most extraordinary work by a great composer you’ve never — or very rarely — heard performed live.

It’s a setting of the the solemn Roman Catholic mass by a man whose own religious beliefs had little to do with Catholicism or liturgy of any kind.

It’s 80 minutes of power, delicacy, surprise and wonder. It strains the range of its singers and vocal soloists, particularly the sopranos, and it is so quiet at times, it barely can be heard.

It’s led by one of the most important living conductors, one of a handful of artists with the necessary insight and long personal and professional history who can pull off the work and command total focus from performers and audience.

It’s Beethoven’s “Missa solemnis,” performed Thursday at Symphony Center, and the remaining performances this weekend by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under the leadership, at once authoritative and wholly sympathetic, of former principal conductor Bernard Haitink, 83, are not to be missed.

Whole books have been written on this puzzling yet compelling work. Major conductors have resisted the unusual piece, including CSO music director Riccardo Muti, who has said, “Not yet. But before I die!” Hearing it makes it evident why Beethoven had a composer’s admiration for his near-contemporary, Muti’s beloved Luigi Cherubini.

For “Missa solemnis,” written from 1819-23, parallel to his work on the Ninth “Choral” Symphony, his last two piano sonatas and the similarly hard to categorize “Diabelli” Variations, Beethoven took the standard mass text and more confronted it than set it to give voice to his own independent religious impulses.

“From the heart — may it go — to the heart!” Beethoven famously inscribed on a work others might have thought should be addressed to God Himself. Racing through most of the text of the Credo — the basic expression of Christian belief — he peppers the concluding Agnus Dei (“Lamb of God”) section with abstract martial sounds, “war episodes,” while writing in the score that he urges man to hold on to Beethoven’s own ideas of “inner and outward peace.”

In the Credo, Beethoven writes eerie, floating wind sounds around “Et incarnatus est” (the idea that Jesus was born of the Holy Spirit), one of several passages unlike anything else in Beethoven, or in other music of this time, for that matter. The work follows with an almost welcoming, natural set of sounds around “Et homo factus” — “and became man.” Haitink takes all of this and makes it of a piece. He might be a great teacher or actor walking everyone through Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” and showing how parts that seem disparate actually cohere. Or how the sudden instrumental opening and the choral and solo responses of the Kyrie, God and man — and woman — each stating his or her case, fit with the quiet, almost accidental-sounding end of the Agnus Dei and the work as a whole.

“The piece really has no end,” Haitink told me after Thursday’s performance. “You feel that [after four years of consecutive work], Beethoven just had had enough and said, ‘Bah! It’s done!” The bursting out of one more choral “Gloria” in that earlier section, after the orchestra has stopped playing, makes as much sense here as the high-pitched violin melody in the following Sanctus.

A reduced orchestra — only five basses and six cellos as a ground — and a chorus of 83, play and sing as a unity and as if they had been working with Haitink on this for two months instead of just two or three days. Duain Wolfe expertly prepared the chorus in Beethoven’s odd dynamic markings and Germanized Latin — “Dona nobis PATZ-em,” which sounds the “Give us peace” prayer.

Chicago favorite and Lyric Opera Ryan Center alumna soprano Erin Wall, belated CSO debutante mezzo Bernarda Fink, tenor Anthony Dean Griffey in his first subscription concerts, and Haitink favorite, German bass-baritone Hanno Müller-Brachman, were what Beethoven wanted as a solo quartet — well-matched but highly individual voices. Chen and other instrumental leaders, especially winds and Daniel Gingrich’s superb horn section, were breathing with Haitink, and the composer.

Every visit to Chicago from the Lucerne-based Haitink is a gift, especially one such as this. It is often said that there can be no perfect performance of the Missa. I’m not sure what kept this one from disproving that observation.

Andrew Patner is critic at large for WFMT-FM (98.7).

© 2014 Sun-Times Media, LLC. All rights reserved. This material may not be copied or distributed without permission. For more information about reprints and permissions, visit To order a reprint of this article, click here.