Beethoven's Missa Solemnis performed by Bernard Haitink with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, CSO Chorus (Duain Wolf, director) and soloists Erin Wall, Bernarda Fink, Anthony Dean Griffey, and Hanno Muller-Brachmann, October 26, 2012.
Bernard Haitink's stint as Principal Conductor (2006-2010) for the Chicago Symphony didn't change my view of him, though it did deepen it. His emphasis on balance and de-emphasis on histrionics or exaggeration works with some pieces better than with others. The Beethoven cycle that wrapped up his Principal years with the orchestra was terrific even if pieces that almost beg for some inflation -- like the 5th Symphony -- took some adjustment if one had heard the CSO's blazing performances by, for example, Carlos Kleiber or Solti.
One piece that didn't show up in that cycle was the Missa Solemnis, and Haitink's performance Friday night proved a perfect match between composition and conductor. The soloists were good, the orchestra superb and the chorus amazing. But Haitink was damn near perfect in keeping the work -- which can show its seams if played for dramatic contrasts -- moving forward with profundity by letting the piece speak for itself, which might sound easy or obvious. It is neither. The piece can be challenging to absorb as a listener, and its (typical for Beethoven) unorthodoxies seem even more difficult to sort out as an interpreter. Haitink made it sound easy, and made it easy to focus on the astonishing music.
I was lucky to have a chance to briefly talk with Haitink afterwards, and when I described the Missa as a "strange" work of Beethoven's, he immediately defended it as extraordinary. Of course he was right, and the perfect conductor to prove it.