Lengthy, complex and unrelentingly difficult to sing, Beethoven's "Missa Solemnis" is truly the "New York, New York" of the choral repertoire. If you can make it there, you'll make it anywhere.
The Annapolis Chorale tackled Beethoven's awesome masterwork Saturday evening at Maryland Hall, and the results confirm that Ernest Green's Carnegie-bound ensemble has indeed emerged as one of the premiere choruses of the Baltimore-Washington region. Its Beethoven was worthy, indeed.
I suspect Mr. Green has been affected by the "authentic performance" consciousness brought to light in the choral realm by conductors such as John Eliot Gardiner of Great Britain. For what we heard Saturday was a brisk, tautly conceived "Missa Solemnis" from which all ponderous traces had been removed.
Beethoven's more expansive side was played down as Mr. Green opted instead to communicate the intensity of the music through an incisive clarity that brought the musical drama home vividly, but without much of the weighty grandeur other conductors have found there. It is a defensible, often fascinating vision of the piece, a view that works even better when the exceptionally talented Annapolis Chamber Orchestra is helping to bring it off.
There was no dawdling in the "Kyrie," which sounded unusually engaging and unpretentious. The treacherous transition to "Christe eleison" was beautifully handled. The choral portions of the "Gloria" bounced along with great energy and I was most impressed by the masterful way the assembled forces built up to the "In Gloria Dei Patris" fugue that brings the interlude to such a hair-raising conclusion.
But the "Credo" -- the central declaration of the faith -- could have stood more articulative weight. Too much of the text slipped by in a musical blur as the "lean is better" approach temporarily obscured the power of the liturgy. Even at that, the two monster "Et vitam" fugues were thrilling (if a tad frayed) and the tenors contributed a deeply felt "Et Incarnatus Est."
Soprano Jane Adler and mezzo Kathryn Barnes-Burroughs proved exemplary soloists, but their male counterparts had me scratching my head more than once. Tenor Rodney Nolan sang heroically in a piece where heroism seldom matters. When Ms. Adler set him up with a crystalline "Suscipe" in the "Gloria," the tenor bellowed a response more appropriate to Act III of Wagner's "Siegfried." Bass Marc Berman took the songful repose of the "Benedictus" as an opportunity to audition for the lead in "Boris Godunov."
Still, this was a "Missa Solemnis" to be admired. "From the heart, may it go to the heart," wrote Beethoven of his creation. His intentions were honored.