In the famous Queen's Hall chapter of Howard's End, Forster writes: "It will be generally admitted that Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is the most sublime noise that has ever penetrated into the ear of man". Substitute the Missa solemnis, venture a quibble on the word 'noise', and that is exactly the conviction which is likely to well up irresistibly within the listener before this recording has run more than half its course.
It is a performance on a large scale. Where Gardiner, like Terje Kvam's Hanover Band before him (Nimbus), trimmed both choir and orchestra so as to gain maximum precision and clarity, there are here three choirs (exceptionally accomplished) and the full opulence of one of the world's great orchestras. Then for the soloists: Gardiner's were good individually and well-matched as a quartet, but not chosen from among the elite company of 'great names' as these so conspicuously and with such a lavish hand have been. There is also the difference of circumstances, in that this from Salzburg is a live recording, so that while the precision of attack would be improved under studio conditions (and in this respect Gardiner is demonstrably preferable), the more general 'feel' of the performance (which matters a great deal where the Missa solemnis is concerned) may fire the imagination and exalt the spirits beyond nything that comes within the scope of analytical criticism.
In style, the conducting encourages breadth, warmth, nobility: so that, for example, the final pages of the Kyrie have that suggestion of Mahler, perhaps even Elgar, which one has known before (though not in Gardiner), and the "In gloriam Dei Patris" fugue has the kind of weight which momentarily and with due modification recalls the tradition represented by Klemperer. But there is mobility and excitement too (as in the exhilarating orchestral passage before the second "Et vitam venturi" fugue), and the lightness of heart in the lilt of the "Dona nobis pacem" has rarely conveyed its benediction more happily than here.
As for the great ones whose names alone are sufficient to make this, as the blurb says, "the most luxurious Missa solemnis of our time", they bring a splendour which is not the mere glamour of their stardom. Norman produces the richest contralto tone I can recall in this music, Domingo sings with superb definition and intensity, Moll excels in the Agnus Dei. Studer makes too free with the portamentos, but she also meets the fearsome challenges of her part resourcefully. The fifth soloist is Gerhart Hetzel, with regard to whom the occasion has a particular preciousness and poignancy, for he has since died following a climbing accident. Writing in memory of the Vienna Philharmonic's leader, Levine pays warm tribute to the man with whom he had worked for 16 years, and who in the Benedictus plays with a sweetness and grace worthy of a Kreisler.