There's an argument that the rituals of classical concerts make them seem closer to church-going than entertainment, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra's opening concert of its 2008-9 season at the Barbican addressed this problem head on. Beethoven's Missa Solemnis is a piece born of an intense and personal religious conviction, but it's difficult to imagine it as part of any conventional church service. If classical music has become something akin to a substitute for religion, then here it meets Beethoven coming the opposite way, dragging religion out of church and into the concert hall.
Jiři Bělohlávek produces a wonderful sound from the orchestra, and we're glad to hear them sounding so solid and disciplined once again after the wobbles they suffered under their previous principal conductor. If the BBC Symphony Chorus occasionally sounded strained in some of the louder passages, it's only fair to point out that Beethoven shows little concern for the problems involved in singing unrelentingly very high and very loudly, and as the performance progressed they seemed to settle into the piece. The quartet of solo singers, always a potential source of worry in this piece, managed to blend with each other very effectively, although we were a bit worried that soprano Christine Brewer wasn't feeling her best, as she seemed unusually restrained, especially next to the powerful, lush tones of mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk. Beethoven's hyperactive chopping and changing of moods and odd combination of rapt devotion and rampaging ego would make him unbearable if he wasn't so good, but the final moments of the mass, a restrained plea for peace in a time of war, transcend time and place and speak to us now as vividly as they must have in 1824.
Words by Peter Nagle. Check out the rest of the BBC Symphony Orchestra's season at the Barbican