Missa solemnis


Beethoven Missa solemnis in D major, Op. 123. On April 19-25, 2012, Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducts the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and Netherlands Radio Choir in the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam. Soloists are Marlis Petersen (soprano), Elisabeth Kulman (contralto), Werner Güra (tenor), and Gerald Finley (bass). TV direction by Joost Honselaar. Released in 2013, the audio was recorded with 48kHz/24-bit sound sampling. The Blu-ray disc has PCM stereo and 5.0 dts-HD Master Audio sound output. Grade: B

On June 3, 2016, Sony released an audio recording of a 2015 performance of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis by Nikolaus Harnoncourt. This was one of Harnoncourt’s final performances. As a fan of Missa solemnis and choral music in general, I leapt to obtain the high-resolution FLAC files! This event caused me to revisit subject title on Blu-ray and to prepare this review for HDVDarts.com. If you are sitting on the fence whether to buy the latest Harnoncourt audio recording, I suggest you consider this high-quality Blu-ray in lieu, or as a supplement.

My first introduction to Missa solemnis happened to be through Harnoncourt’s 1992 recording, released in 1993 on a Teldec double CD. At the time, I struggled to connect with the work . . . perhaps due to lack of life experience to balance my youthful oblivion. I suppose I shouldn’t be too hard on myself for this; Harnoncourt himself waited until he was 62 to record Missa solemnis for the first time!

There was also a time in the recent past when I was an audio-only classical music consumer. It was during a trip to Seattle, only 2 to 3 years ago, that I found a DVD copy of Missa solemnis at a used-CD store. The primary reason for my initial interest in the video format was the possibility of higher-than-CD-quality audio. But I ended up getting hooked by the visuals! I credit the magic of this first audio-visual experience as key to my current veneration of this deeply spiritual work. Rest assured that I have since replaced my DVD with our subject-title Harnoncourt Blu-ray version.

It seems to me that Harnoncourt’s vision of the work did not change significantly over the last 24 years of his life. I realize that my ears may not pick up on the subtle nuances that undoubtedly exist; however, brief high-level observations between the 2012 (Blu-ray) and 2015 (audio) performances are as follows:

1. The 2012 (Blu-ray) performance seemed to me to be a very serious occasion. There is nary a smile to be found until well after the applause starts at the conclusion. I believe there is more light, joy, and peace in the 2015 (audio) performance.

2. The seriousness of the 2012 Blu-ray performance is perhaps also enhanced by slightly slower tempi than IN Harnoncourt’s audio recordings. Next below is a comparison of timings between his 3 versions (in the Blu-ray, Harnoncourt spends time  between movements resting in a chair, but I did not include this time in the 86 minutes noted below):


Harnoncourt – 1992

(Teldec CD)

Harnoncourt – 2012

(C Major Blu-ray)

Harnoncourt - 2015

(Sony Audio Files)

















Agnus Dei





80 minutes

86 minutes

81 minutes

The Blu-ray picture quality is reasonably sharp, although there are times when it slips and becomes softer-than-ideal. Sound quality is excellent; however, this production did not leverage 96 kHz/24-bit recording technology.

Next we get into the controversial part of our analysis---correct video content. If you are not already familiar with the term "DVDitis," please refer to our extensive discussion of proper standards for HDVD symphony videos, our Wonk Worksheet, and our Wonk Worksheet Instructions. In two sentences: DVDitis is an illness that afflicts Blu-ray discs that were originally shot to be published as DVDs and which don't take proper advantage of HD video capabilities. Because of poor camera resolution, DVDs must feature small-scale video images; but HD cameras can successfully make the large-scale video images we crave and deserve.

Next below are statistics for the various kinds of video clips in this Missa solemnis, obtained using a Wonk Worksheet:

  • Conductor = 57

  • C/B = 30 (conductor shots made over the backs of musicians)

  • Soloist(s), not realistic = 105 (Soloists here means the star singers)

  • *Soloist(s), realistic = 60

  • Solos, S§, SG, & misc. small-scale = 234 (S§ is small section. SG is small group)

  • *L§, LG, & misc. large-scale = 61

  • *PO = 49 (PO is part-orchestra)

  • *WO = 28 (WO is whole-orchestra)

  • IO = 6 (instrument only)

There's a total of 630 clips over 86 minutes of music, which yields a pace of 8.2 seconds per clip. Including soloist (“realistic”) shots, there are 198 supershots (marked above with "*"), which equates to 31% of the total clips. There are 87 total conductor shots, which is 14% of total clips. I classified 36% of soloist shots as “realistic”.

We have established the following 4 tests to identify a Blu-ray with DVDitis:

A good symphony HDVD should have a slow pace with more than 10 seconds per video clip on average. 20 to 40% of the clips should be large-scale "supershots." Conductor shots should be less than 20% of the clips in the video. Over 50% of soloist shots should be realistic.

The video of subject title Missa solemnis passes the two most important tests: the "supershot test" (has lots of large-scale shots) and the "conductor test" (does not have too many clips of the conductor). It fails the "pace test" (has too many clips that are too short) and the "soloist test" (has too many close-ups of soloists). Since the video fails 2 tests, it suffers from DVDitis. However, to help illustrate the nature and degree of the DVDitis, I believe it is important to review actual screen shots. As described in the Wonk Worksheet Instructions, the screen-shot classification rules are not black-and-white . . . especially when choristers are involved in concert performances.

First, we will get our bearings with whole-orchestra (WO) views. Below is a shot with 100% of the musicians:

I interpreted this next shot as WO (I thought the view includes more than 90% of the musicians):

I'll move now to 2 of the plentiful PO shots:

Now to large-scale shots! The Wonk Worksheet instructions contain the following guidance:

For a large choir of 60 or more, a shot containing greater than 12 choristers will likely give an audience-like perspective and be large-scale. If a choir happens to have readily distinguishable sections (soprano, alto, tenor, or bass), it would be reasonable to classify a section shot as large-scale if it has been neatly framed by the video director. For a chamber choir (perhaps up to a maximum of 36 choristers, but typically less), waist-up shots with multiple singers (perhaps 25% or more of the total number) are likely to feel large-scale. Rules can only take us so far. Judgment will be key in assessing a broad range of shots over a broad range of concert productions.

There are 68 choristers in the subject title – 38 women and 30 men. The above instructions give an indication that 12 choristers in a shot will likely make it “large-scale”. Let’s take a look.

I count about 12 choristers in the shot below, not counting the back row as it is mostly obscured and not as in-focus. I classified this shot as large-scale, but “on the cusp”:

This next shot also has 12 choristers in the shot, but in the heat of the moment it was classified as “small-scale”. To me, the different zoom level impacted the feel:

Despite the number of choristers, I also classified the following shot as small-scale:


I classified the following shots as “large-scale”.  The visibility of the back rows in this shot makes it feel larger to me than the previous sample:

There are also many, many obvious large-scale chorus shots. Enjoy!

The following small-scale shot was easy to classify:

The soloist shots in this title were also somewhat difficult to classify between realistic and non-realistic. The guidance of “waist up” visibility isn’t always as obvious as I would like! The buttons at the bottom of Gerald Finley’s vest are not visible in the shot below, making it “not realistic” in my books:


This next shot is at the same zoom, so it was also classified as “not realistic”:

Consistency can be difficult to achieve in the grading of a lengthy title. I graded the shot below as “realistic” based on seeing the buttons at the bottom of Werner Güra’s vest, and the bow around Elisabeth Kulman’s waist …despite it being at the same level of zoom as the "not realistic" shots above.

As the previous shots show, the not-realistic clips in this title can still be very enjoyable and value-adding –-- especially considering the importance of facial expressions to a vocalist’s performance. However, the close-up view does result in the singers occasionally moving outside an ideal position in the frame. Although the example below doesn’t represent a serious infraction, it may give some indication as to why “realistic” shots are given more value in the grading of a title.

The issue of a performer bobbing in and out of view is not an issue at zoom levels that qualify as realistic soloist shots, as seen below:

Despite the seriousness of the performance, I promised a transition to smiles during the applause:


Time for a grade! We start with the base grade of A+. A partial grade is deducted due to the lack of 96kHz/24-bit sound. Otherwise, SQ and PQ are fine.  This brings us to an A. The video passes the two most important tests (supershots and conductor clips).  It is necessary to deduct a full grade for the too-rapid pace, which, clearly does not meet the 10 second criterion. This brings us to a B. I believe the low percent of realistic soloist shots is not a serious infraction, given the difficulty in grading the clips and also considering the importance of facial expressions to vocal performances. So I will stick to a B for this Missa solemnis.

Except for the problems with video content, this is an excellent release that I recommend highly. Many would consider this the best recording of Missa Solemnis ever made in any format with the Thielemann recording at Dresden coming in as the first runner-up. And there's still plenty of room for another Missa solemnis Blu-ray (maybe in 4k) that will take full advantage of HD video to earn an A grade.