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BSO, Levine scale heights of majestic 'Missa'

Solo quartet performance highlights powerful Beethoven piece

Reprinted from late editions of yesterday's Globe.

James Levine doesn't mince words, and in his note to the audience in this week's Boston Symphony Orchestra program book he proclaims, ''[Beethoven's] 'Missa Solemnis' is the greatest piece ever written. Really, l mean it."

This craggy monument may not be the most lovable work ever composed, but Mount Everest isn't particularly lovable, either; like the ''Missa," it is irrefutably and challengingly there. The music is extreme in all its technical and emotional demands. Written more than 180 years ago, it sounds contemporary and always will, because it addresses the issue of man and his relationship to the divine with such honesty. It is a testament not so much to unswerving faith as to the hard winning of it. It doesn't shirk from the hardest truths, and even the radiant prayer for peace at the end is interrupted by trumpets and drums, the sounds of war.

The BSO programmed the ''Missa Solemnis" to open Symphony Hall in 1900, and it has periodically resounded there since. Thursday night's was a particularly stirring performance.

There was the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, for example, pouring out handsome, varied, expressive sound tirelessly, even when everyone was singing at top volume, top speed, and the top of the vocal range. The two great fugues were sung with tremendous, disciplined élan, and the quieter passages shone with a wonderful luminosity of sound.

There was also a remarkable solo quartet led by soprano Christine Brewer, replacing Deborah Voigt on just a few hours' notice. She may fill out a few phrases more fully in the forthcoming performances, but her musical and technical security Thursday night were as impressive as the size and luster of her voice. The development of her career has been slow, steady, and secure, and now she stands at the peak of her profession. It was good to hear tenor Ben Heppner back in top form, singing with lyrical tone and impulse but with heroic power. Bass Rene Pape produced a sound that was as magnificent when quiet as when it was loud, and thrilling as it expanded between them. Jill Grove, an alumna of New England Conservatory, did not dispel disappointment that Lorraine Hunt Lieberson had chosen to withdraw, but you could certainly hear why this young mezzo has been generating excitement -- her voice is vibrant and her personality generous. But while the others sang within their means, Grove tended to push beyond hers, which resulted in bulges in the phrasing.

Concertmaster Malcolm Lowe provided a splendid solo in the ''Benedictus," more passionately yearning than serene, and the orchestral playing throughout was first-rate. Levine has the measure of this piece, commanding span and detail, mood and transition. The precision and energy he brought to his work may derive from the example of the great Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini, but the breadth and warmth are all his own.

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