Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger:

Cantata for the Inauguration of the Beethoven Statue, 1845
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN
Choral Fantasia
Paul Komen - fortepiano, Diana Damrau - soprano, Jörg Dürmuller - tenor, Georg Zeppenfeld - bass Kölner Kantorei, Capella Coloniensis Des WDR/Bruno Weil
Recorded live 4/10/2000 at the International Beethoven Festival, Bonn
DEUTSCHE HARMONIA MUNDI 05472 77535 2 [45:59]
  AmazonUK   AmazonUS

Well, here's something new! Liszt was commissioned to compose a cantata for the inauguration of Beethoven's statue in Bonn whilst still in his early 30s and this CD offers the world premiere of the outcome, a work which was to be his first for large-scale vocal and instrumental forces. The lack of a previous recording is explained by Günther Massenkeil in his informative booklet notes. As can often occur with music composed for specific occasions, the cantata was completely forgotten after its first and only performances (it had to be repeated that day due to the late arrival of royal guests) and no performing material survived. An early autograph score, without most of the words for the singers and chorus, still existed and only in the 1980s was the task of reconstruction undertaken by Massenkeil. Fortunately the text for the cantata had been printed in the original inauguration programme, so a true and accurate edition was possible.

Nevertheless it has taken a further twelve years from the first modern performance for the cantata to reach compact disc. Liszt had the good fortune to have met Beethoven when only twelve years old, on tour as the latest pre-teen piano sensation. His adoration of the master was life-long as his piano transcriptions of Beethoven's songs and symphonies testify. Doubtless he grabbed this opportunity to express his feelings with great alacrity. Or so one might think.

But from the evidence of the cantata itself one has to accept that Liszt at this time was both an ambitious realist as well as a creature of the age. Rather than compose a work of depth and significance he chose the safer route of providing a crowd-pleaser. The somewhat swooning mid-century text by Oskar Ludwig Bernhard Wolff is hardly a masterpiece, so perhaps Liszt had little choice in this matter, although music history is littered with examples of composers rising above their librettists.

Already by this date, the late Ludwig van Beethoven's reputation had moved from respected near-contemporary composer, via high priest of his art to an almost saintly, god like status, well beyond the realms of criticism. The final words of the cantata 'Hail! Hail! Beethoven, hail!' give as good an impression of the general mood as any. Over half an hour long, the Beethoven Cantata falls into four sections with solo soprano, bass and, in particular, tenor declaiming their praise with heated comments from the chorus. The rabble-rousing opening sets the general tone and one notices straight away that Bruno Weil enjoys the services of a first-class chorus who create much pleasure with their dynamic, accurate and spirited singing. Sections of note spinning are interspersed with glimpses of the great Liszt of later days; the instrumental interludes are particularly gratifying.

The short second section describes Beethoven as a god-like figure 'destined to perish, only in death is there permanence'. Yet, even here, Liszt cannot resist the temptation to indulge in some early tone-poem devices; the musical description of the waves ('If like the waves of the sea, all nations rush past on the river of time') is both arresting and extremely effective, almost up to the standards of Debussy, yet all of sixty years earlier.

The third section, like much of what has gone before, is exciting and uplifting. A strong melody for the 'cellos begins an eight minute 'movement' in which Liszt is clearly enjoying himself enormously. Consistently one is reminded of music yet to be composed, which says a great deal for the sheer insouciance as well as natural talent of the young composer. The 'cello opening is in the vein of the start of Part Two of the Verdi Requiem; later a kind of 'public school' jollity invades a passage which could come straight out of the Sullivan of the Savoy operas, and if that is not too far-fetched, the major melody here is distinctly like the Beatles' Yellow Submarine. Not a serious point, of course, but an indication of the sheer breadth of Liszt's imagination. Only his extraordinarily trivial music for 'The genius - in his actions eternally true and great' casts a real shadow of doubt.

The finale at last deigns to quote the music of Beethoven. At this point the accusation of Liszt being the creator of a mere pragmatic 'pot-boiler' has to be partially withdrawn. He chooses the Andante Cantabile from the 'Archduke Trio' as the major theme, which the chorus sing to great effect. The belief in religion and politics as the two swords necessary to make a mighty swathe towards freedom - so typical of the period - brings out the best in Liszt. In his music for the words 'Holy is the genius's sway on earth. He lent us a foretaste of heaven, immortality's surest pledge' and 'This celebration has united us!' the composer appears to be on his surest ground. An uplifting coda, performed here with stunning accuracy by both orchestra and chorus, leaves one almost convinced.

Beethoven's Choral Fantasia is, of course, much better known. It is doubtful whether this CD will be bought primarily for the Beethoven and this is by no means the first version using period instruments. Here the fact that this is a 'live' CD obtrudes for the first time. Just before the entry of the main theme where horn and wind chords provide the link, a member of the audience chooses (one trusts) to take out a handkerchief and blow his/her nose, twice, very loudly indeed. This really should have been retaken in the usual post-concert patch session. The pianist Paul Comen plays with real brio, although the limitations of the 1815 Viennese instrument seem to be a restricting factor for him. Melvyn Tan's studio recording for EMI has to remain a better choice; Tan and Norrington create a superior sense of period scale which, in particular, allows the fortepiano to create a real sense of fantasy.

At a programme length of only 45.59 this is hardly a bargain, particularly at DHM's full price. But for Liszt completists this is a must. It must also be strongly recommended for amateur choirs looking for something new. Both they and their audience will have a ball!


Simon Foster

Return to Index

Reviews from previous months
We welcome feedback on our reviews. Please use the Bulletin Board.  Please paste in the first line of your comments the URL of the review to which you refer.This is the only part of MusicWeb for which you will have to register.

You can purchase CDs, tickets and musician's accessories and Save around 22% with these retailers: