Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Das glorreiche Augenblick, Op.1361 (1814) [37.52]
Choral Fantasia, Op.802 (1808) [19.49]
Claire Rutter (soprano); Matilde Wallevik (mezzo); Peter Hoare (tenor); Stephen Gadd (bass); Marta Fontanals-Simmons (mezzo)2; Julian Davies (tenor)2; Leon McCawley (piano)2
Westminster Boys’ Choir1;City of London Choir; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Hilary Davan Wetton
rec. Cadogan Hall, London, 5-6 February 2011
NAXOS 8.572783 [57.41]
Das glorreiche Augenblick has had a uniformly bad press ever since the nineteenth century. It was written for the representatives of the European powers who assembled at Vienna in November 1814 to settle the future of the continent after the defeat of Napoleon. It was only to separate in total consternation when Napoleon escaped from Elba and returned to France. The piece was first performed at the same concert as the première of the Battle Symphony, an occasional piece written to celebrate Wellington’s victory over the French armies at Vittoria. The received opinion is that it was as bad a work as that dreadful piece of opportunistic jingoism. As such it has never featured much in the recording studio, and its previous outings have been restricted to complete collections of Beethoven’s works.
The performance enshrined on this recording, when given in London, seemed to change the critics’ views somewhat. Firstly, the text was given in a revised version which deleted some of the more sycophantic tributes to the various crowned heads whose representatives attended the première. It substituted more pan-humanist sentiments which better reflected Beethoven’s own personal beliefs. Some might object to this, but in all honesty anything which brings music like this back into circulation is to be welcomed. The purely occasional original text is as awful as all such ‘crawling’ inevitably is.
Secondly, this is a late Beethovenian work, and dates from the same period that he was revising Fidelio in the form in which we currently know it. No such work can be totally worthless - although one might make an exception in the case of the Battle Symphony. In fact the music is much better than one has any reasonable hope to expect, even though the choral hymns in praise of Vienna - so written in the original German, not as Wien - may try the patience somewhat. Indeed, the choral writing is not the best thing about this cantata, although it is undeniably exciting.
Thirdly, the performance is given with real conviction that if the work is not a masterpiece it is far from worthy of the total neglect it has received since the assembled royalty in Vienna gave it their self-congratulatory seal of approval. The soloists are all absolutely superb. Claire Rutter barnstorms her way through her aria - which features a starry contribution from Clio Gould in the obbligato violin solo. Matilde Wallevik brings us to attention with a clarion introduction to her aria as a ‘prophetess’, even though the aria which follows is rather more conventional. This voice is a major addition to the rank of heroic mezzo-sopranos. Peter Hoare and Stephen Gadd have rather less to do, but do what they are given very well. The four voices combine very happily in the quartet which precedes the final chorus. The combined choirs in that final chorus really whip up a storm accompanied by a battery of ‘Turkish’ percussion which in some ways anticipates the similar passage in the final movement of the Choral Symphony. The orchestra under the energetic baton of Hilary Davan Wetton really sound as if they enjoy discovering this music – as indeed they should. The real parallels are with the finale of Fidelio, which Beethoven was revising at the time – not quite as good, but not far below that level either.
The Choral Fantasia is a much more familiar work, and has been frequently employed as a ‘fill-up’ when an additional Beethoven work is needed to complete collections of the piano concertos as well as various choral works. It has been denigrated as a pale draft for the material which Beethoven would employ to such glorious effect in the Choral Symphony, as well as for its uneasy combination of soloists, chorus and orchestra with a virtuoso piano part. It is, however, a worthwhile piece in its own right, and the performance here is pretty good without being overblown. Leon McCawley does everything he can with the opening for solo piano, probably the nearest we are ever likely to come to hearing Beethoven’s improvisations which won him such acclaim during his lifetime.
In summary, the work for which the listener should hear this CD is the almost totally unknown cantata - Beethoven at his mature best. Congratulations are due to Naxos for including both text and translation in the insert booklet – as stated, the original words have been altered so it might not be possible to obtain the revised version from the internet – as well as on the Naxos website. The recording quality is absolutely superb even in the tricky balances of the Choral Fantasia, well balanced and clear in the Royal Philharmonic’s own concert hall.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
An almost totally unknown cantata - Beethoven at his mature best.