Even the greatest ensembles can lose intensity and focus toward the end of an 80-minute, devilishly difficult composition.
On Thursday, the Atlanta Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, led by principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles, proved a contradiction: The ensemble sounded stronger the deeper it waded into the “Missa Solemnis,” Beethoven’s late-period masterwork.
The first three-quarters of the performance contained moments of glory, but tempo issues and a lack of energy weighed down the shimmering music. As the “Kyrie” and “Gloria” gave way to the “Credo,” the amassed musicians instantly seemed more sure-footed and comfortable with the composition.
The late ASO music director Robert Shaw, who is being celebrated throughout the season, conducted the “Missa Solemnis” on more than half a dozen separate occasions during his career in Atlanta. For each of these performances, he wrote letters to his singers, preparing them for a work that makes unrivaled demands on the chorus.
Calling the work a “huge sacred symphony,” he wrote that Beethoven almost treats the vocalists as instrumentalists, writing melodic lines found more commonly in violin scores. The vocal writing is full of wide melodic interval leaps, blistering tempos and startling changes in dynamics — in the opening bars of the “Kyrie,” vocalists drop from a shout to a whisper in a swift movement.
In a piece with no shortage of high and loud sustained singing, the chorus was most powerful when singing in the dynamic range between mezzo-forte and pianissimo. Though the choir is awesome to behold at full bore, these sections could feel emotionally detached and didn’t carry the gravity of the quieter passages.
The guest soloists blended together as one during the frequent quartet passages, but were still able to assert their individuality during solo singing. Soprano Kim-Lillian Strebel and mezzo-soprano Stephanie Lauricella joined tenor Shawn Mathey and baritone Brian Mulligan to infuse the solo singing with passion and exuberance. Strebel has a rosy, glowing tone, even when her voice soars at stratospheric heights; Mathey’s occasionally aggressive tone early on in the performance gave the piece a bit of added urgency.
One of the shining moments, on a night positioned to highlight the voice, came not from the usually exceptional chorus nor the compelling soloists, but concertmaster David Coucheron. A stable beacon among the strings since his arrival in 2010, Coucheron displayed exquisitely rich vibrato and appropriate dramatic flair during an extended violin solo in the “Sanctus” section. In fact, this was the moment where the music took a turn toward inspiration; perhaps Coucheron’s solo ignited a spark of passion that carried through the rest of the work.
Critic Tim Page once wrote that a flawless performance of “Missa Solemnis” is possibly only a figment of the imagination. With a bit more polishing, perhaps the amassed musicians could have met that lofty goal.
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra performs “Missa Solemnis”
8 p.m. Jan. 21. Additional performance at 8 p.m. Jan. 23. $30-$84. Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 404-733-5000, www.atlantasymphony.org.