Classical Music: Beethoven’s ‘greatest’ is an Everest for choir

What: Victoria Choral Society: Beethoven’s Missa solemnis
When/where: Sunday, 2 p.m., Farquhar Auditorium (University Centre, University of Victoria)
Tickets: $35, students and unwaged $10. Call 250-721-8480; online at tickets.uvic.ca; in person at the UVic Ticket Centre
and
What
: Emily Carr String Quartet: Beethoven from Beginning to End.
When/where: Saturday, 7:30 p.m., Church of St. John the Divine (1611 Quadra St.); Sunday, 2:30 p.m., Church of St. Mary of the Incarnation (4125 Metchosin Rd.).
Tickets: $25, students free. Online at eventbrite.ca; in person at Ivy’s Bookshop and the Royal and McPherson box offices.

Fans of the late works of Beethoven can hear two of the most profound and idiosyncratic of them this weekend: the Missa solemnis and the String Quartet in C-sharp Minor, Op. 131.

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The Missa solemnis, begun in 1819, was originally intended for the installation of the Archduke Rudolph as Archbishop of Olmütz, in 1820. Rudolph, the youngest son of the Holy Roman Emperor, Leopold II, had been Beethoven’s pupil and remained his patron and friend.

But Beethoven struggled mightily with the work, which became immensely important to him, and he completed it only in 1823.

This monumental setting of the Latin Mass, running 70 to 80 minutes in most performances, is highly unorthodox both liturgically and musically, reflecting Beethoven’s genuine but very personal religious faith, as well as his doubts.

The score is full of strikingly original details, such as the angelic violin solo in the Benedictus and the military fanfares and anxious recitatives that interrupt the Agnus Dei, which Beethoven described as a plea for “inner and outer peace.” But he also draws on archaic church-music idioms (Gregorian chant, medieval modes, fugue) and on models including Palestrina, Bach, Handel and Haydn.

Eclectic, extraordinarily wide-ranging in style and tone, the music is also tightly organized through recurring themes and sonorities, key relationships and other techniques.

Beethoven wrote that the Missa solemnis was his greatest work — and he underlined “greatest.” Brian Wismath, who will conduct the Victoria Choral Society's performance of it on Sunday, goes farther, suggesting that it “could easily be considered the most significant work of all time.”

For a choir and a conductor, this is an Everest of the repertoire. It is difficult to perform (“There are no easy moments,” Wismath says), and difficult to appreciate. Music so original and uncompromising will probably remain a challenge no matter how much time passes.

Indeed, it took more than a century and a half for the Missa solemnis to reach our city. A performance by the University of Victoria’s chorus and orchestra in 1998 was reported as the local première, and there is no evidence that it has been performed here since. Sunday’s performance, then, counts as a big deal.

The choir, which numbers more than 120, will be accompanied by a 44-member orchestra drawn mostly from the Victoria Symphony. Of the four highly accomplished vocal soloists, three are based here: soprano Ingrid Attrot, mezzo-soprano Sarah Fryer and bass-baritone Gary Relyea. They will be joined by tenor Thomas Glenn, from Calgary.

In 1824-25, on commission from a cello-playing Russian prince, Beethoven composed the three string quartets published as Opp. 127, 132 and 130. The project so inspired him that he kept at it, writing two more quartets, Opp. 131 and 135, in 1826 — his last completed works. (He died in March 1827.)

Op. 131 became his own favourite among his quartets, because, as he said with hilarious understatement, it had, “thank God, less lack of imagination than before.” Some consider it his greatest work, and it is highly experimental in both form and content.

Running about 40 minutes, it is an unconventional sequence of seven numbered movements played without breaks: a slow, mournful fugue; a jig-like dance; a short quasi-recitative; a long, sublime set of variations; a playful scherzo; a moving, sarabande-like aria; and a furious march.

Op. 131 is a summary of Beethoven's art in its final phase, a whole musical world, yet for all its astonishing contrasts it is perhaps the most integrated, most cyclical work he ever wrote.

Not surprisingly, it was for many years rarely performed and little appreciated, though Schubert requested a private performance of it on his deathbed, in 1828, and afterward said: “After this, what is left for us to write?”

The Emily Carr String Quartet will perform Op. 131 twice this weekend, alongside Beethoven’s charming first quartet, one of the six published in 1801 as his Op. 18.

With mezzo-soprano Tasha Farivar, the quartet will also perform its most recent commissioned work, Klee Wyck Woman, by the Vancouver-based Jennifer Butler, based on local writer Janet Rogers’ poem about Emily Carr. The ECSQ gave its première in Vancouver in November.

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