Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Der glorreiche Augenblick, Op. 136 (1824) [37:52]
Choral Fantasia in C minor for piano, chorus and orchestra, Op. 80 [19:49]
Claire Rutter (soprano); Matilde Wallevik (mezzo); Peter Hoare (tenor); Stephen Gadd (baritone); Additional soloists in Choral Fantasia: Marta Fontanals-Simmons (mezzo); Julian Davies (tenor); City of London Choir; Westminster Boy’s Choir
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Hilary Davan Wetton
rec. Cadogan Hall, London, England, 5-6 February 2011
NAXOS 8.572783 [57:41]
This new recording offers up a genuine Beethoven rarity, his Der glorreiche Augenblick (The Glorious Moment), coupled with the Choral Fantasia. Currently, the only other readily available recording of this cantata is part of Brilliant Classics’ boxed set of Beethoven’s Complete Works (85 CDs).
Composed in 1814, it was commissioned by the Vienna City Administration to celebrate the opening of the Congress of Vienna. The group was meeting to redraw the map of Europe after the defeat of Napoleon. Beethoven began work in October, completing it quickly, in time for its first performance - after three postponements, in part because the copyists were struggling to decipher Beethoven’s writing - on 29 November 1814. While the music was well received, the text, assembled and written by Alois Weissenbach, was almost unanimously disparaged. The score was only published after Beethoven’s death, and many editors replaced Weissenbach’s text with text they deemed more equal to the music. In fact, the score I consulted for this review has a text best translated as “Serenade to Music”.
Each soloist plays an allegorical character: the soprano is the city of Vienna, the mezzo-soprano is a Prophetess, the tenor is Genius and the bass is Leader of the People. Yet despite this uninspiring libretto, Beethoven created a work with finely wrought, interesting music that deserves to be better known.
It begins with a great choral outburst, the choir proclaiming “Europe stands!” The homophonic texture soon gives way to a fugue that, in turn, leads into another fugue - an interesting precursor of the final section of the “Gloria” in the Missa Solemnis) A recitative follows with the joyful mood of the chorus instantly softened to tranquility by the cello soloist’s lovely arch of melody; beautifully played here by Ben Highes. The bass calls the people together to witness the “imperial mantle” returning. A tenor arioso follows, surely one of Beethoven’s most gorgeous melodies, swiftly moving into a chorus extolling the glories of Vienna. This builds to a powerful climax, the different sections of the choir wildly proclaiming “Vienna! Vienna!” accompanied by whooping horns. The following recitative and aria sound positively Mozartian as the soprano praises the Sovereigns gathering together, encouraging them to unify and rebuild Europe. The aria then develops into a constantly shifting dialogue between the soprano, chorus and violin solo, moving from moments of peaceful beauty to vigorous - read contrapuntal - celebration. The mezzo-soprano enters, exhorting the peoples of Europe to “kneel down, people, and pray first to Him who has delivered you.” Beethoven responds with achingly beautiful music that evokes a prayerful atmosphere. Finally, the soloists join in thanking God for their recent victory. Beethoven then has the different sections of the choir gradually enter: first the women, then the children’s choir, and finally the men, everyone finally together. They are accompanied by a full orchestra that includes the Turkish instrumentation of the Ninth Symphony. An overwhelming fugal climax arrives as all sing “Vienna, hail and good fortune! World, your great moment!”
This is a richly scored, powerfully affecting score. I can imagine certain passages faster, sung with greater fervor. I wish the excellent horn players had been encouraged to play with more abandon. However these are minor quibbles against an excellent performance of music that should be better known.
The Choral Fantasia suffers from no such neglect, though it too, has its unique hybrid form which has certainly been the subject of criticism. Its many sections and transitions can all too easily be allowed to sound like disjointed patchwork. Wetton and his forces have created an organic whole, one passage flowing into another with absolute naturalness, in a masterly performance. Leon McCawley’s opening piano solo conveys a wonderful sense of improvisatory freedom. Beethoven did not have the piano part written out in time for the premiere, so he simply improvised the beginning section on the spot. The variations for the piano and orchestra are played with drive and elegance in turn, featuring consistently lovely solo work from the orchestra. McCawley dispatches Beethoven’s difficult piano writing with aplomb and with the entrance of the voices the energy begins a build-up that leads to an overwhelming climax for the final bars.
The soloists are generally impressive, though both the soprano and baritone have a pronounced vibrato that could prove tiresome with repeated listening. The choirs are consistently excellent and they make light of Beethoven’s demanding vocal writing. The playing of the Royal Philharmonic is first-rate in every way, revealing an adoption of historically informed performance practice. Hilary Davan Wetton’s enthusiasm and love for both works is obvious, and, along with Naxos, he deserves special kudos for recording this Beethoven rarity.
David A. McConnell
see also review by Paul Godfrey
Hilary Davan Wetton’s enthusiasm and love for both works is obvious.