Duke Chapel’s grand gothic space hummed with excitement as a near-capacity crowd eagerly awaited the Choral Society of Durham’s performance of Beethoven’s monumental Missa solemnis, written for solo quartet, large chorus, and full orchestra. Rarely performed, this grand work is a treasure for the ages, sweeping across a vast landscape of sound with remarkable and unrelenting intensity. Some artistic masterpieces are said to contain the whole world, and surely Beethoven’s Missa solemnis is a perfect example. Deeply rooted in historical traditions and sharing much in common with other great choral masses, the work is nonetheless a brilliant, unique product of Beethoven’s tortured genius in the final period of his life.

Performing the Missa solemnis is not for the faint of heart, but conductor Rodney Wynkoop has never been shy about tackling some of the world’s most difficult choral music with the Choral Society, an auditioned chorus of approximately 140 fine singers. It takes a village to bring this music to life, and Wynkoop’s village – as we have come to expect around these parts – is comprised of only the best. Chorus, soloists, and orchestra: all were at home with Beethoven’s music, all were emotionally engaged, and all collaborated flawlessly under Wynkoop’s baton as they jointly breathed life into this incredible work of art. Surely Beethoven would have been pleased with the results.

The Missa solemnis makes huge demands, especially on the singers, who must grapple with a parade of energy sappers, including high vocal range, extensive forte passages, and devilishly demanding fugues. A veritable minefield? Yes, but one very much worth traversing. Wynkoop is clearly used to all this and takes it well in stride. Undaunted by technical difficulty, he models a high-energy approach to the music with his clear, exuberant conducting style and his no-nonsense command of musical detail. The trickle-down effect is something to behold.

Mostly complete by the end of 1822, the Missa solemnis was intended for performance at the installation of Archduke Rudolph of Austria as Archbishop of Olmütz, but it was not completed in time. Though Beethoven had no use for organized religion, his diary entries during these years reveal an increasing concern with spiritual matters. In preparation for composing his Missa, Beethoven studied the sacred music of the Baroque and Renaissance, and then deliberately drew compositional devices from traditional mass settings of past centuries, up to Haydn and Mozart. As he delved into the Missa solemnis, Beethoven became increasingly single-minded about the work, which he later called “the greatest work which I have composed so far.” Premiered in April, 1824 in St. Petersburg, portions of the Missa were also performed in the famous May 7, 1824 concert in Vienna, which included Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. In a poignant ending, the profoundly deaf composer had to be turned to face the audience’s ovation.

The Missa’s Kyrie is restrained and solemn, in stark contrast to the Gloria, which screams joy from the outset and culminates in a powerful fugue on the text ” in Gloria Dei Patris, Amen.” The choir jumped into the fugue with such boundless energy, this reviewer wanted to jump up and shout Amen when it ended. Driving energy continues in the massive Credo, which is marked by delightful, traditional text painting devices and ends in another fantastic fugue, this one sung with equal zest. The Sanctus begins quietly but offers contrasting moods throughout; a beautiful instrumental prelude marks the elevation of the Host, followed by a sublime violin solo accompanying the Benedictus and final Osanna.  The Agnus Dei moves into a lilting “Dona nobis pacem,” which Beethoven inscribed “prayer for inner and outward peace.” Indeed, peace wins out in the end. The work concludes not in a triumphal climax as one might expect, but awash in serene calm.

Soloists Tamara Matthews, soprano, Heather Johnson, mezzo-soprano, Robert Bracey, tenor, and Stephen Morscheck, bass, were uniformly outstanding throughout. Gorgeous voices, technical brilliance, and a solid understanding of the style marked their performances. Concertmaster Eric Pritchard delivered a very moving violin solo in the Benedictus/Osanna, and the entire orchestra deserves praise for rich, emotionally expressive playing.

All in all, it doesn’t get much better than this: grand art elegantly performed in a grand space.