Christus am Ölberge, composed to a rather stilted text by Franz Xaver Huber, is Beethoven's only oratorio. It was written shortly before the Eroica and a few months before he began work on his sole opera, Fidelio. Huber drew on the biblical accounts of the events of Christ’s arrest in the garden of Gethsemane. He places a more humanistic emphasis upon his personal commitment to his mission, breaking off before the trial and crucifixion.
The work might not be a masterpiece, but it has some powerful passages, especially the concluding section culminating in a fugal chorale, for angels. This was added during Beethoven’s revision after the first performance in 1803. Perhaps he was stung by the impertinence of the press in calling it a cantata into enhancing its grandeur with a Handelian chorus.
Originally released in November 2003, this recording marked the start of a collaboration between Kent Nagano and “harmonia mundi” - all in lower case, as they perversely insist. I was able to make comparisons with two recordings in my collection: Rilling’s excellent recording headed by Keith Lewis and the old 1957 live account with a young Fritz Wunderlich in scrappy sound. There are times when Rilling, for all that he might have a plodding Kapellmeisterisch reputation with some, makes much more of the music.
Nagano is often very expressive but otherwise essentially underwhelming at key points and has an unfortunate habit, clearly discernible in the crystal clear recording, of punctuating the pulse of music with emphatic grunts and vocalise. Obviously the presence of Plácido Domingo is a major draw and it must be said that there was very little discernible wear or strain in Domingo’s voice in 2002. Even so, he only just about negotiates the florid passages and his German is merely passable. Both Fritz Wunderlich and Keith Lewis are more apt with their lighter, smoother, more beautiful voices.
Sadly, Schmidt’s voice had already lost all its youthful sheen and beauty, although he was only 42 at the time of this recording. The vibrato is laboured and the tone without centre. Both Hermann Schey for Spruit and, especially, Michel Brodard for Rilling, are far preferable. Orgonasova’s big, creamy, rounded voice provides its own thrills, especially as, despite its large size, it is very flexible. However, her sound is almost hochdramatische, as if Fidelio were singing the Seraph. Erna Spoorenberg and Maria Venuti are more to scale even if the latter has some slight harshness of tone. The chorus is excellent and very well placed in the sound picture to make the maximum dramatic effect.
Running time is brief at only 47 minutes. A text and translation are provided. Although I enjoy Orgonasova’s amplitude and the energy of the chorus in the perfect acoustic here, my preference for a recording of this interesting work, unique in Beethoven’s output, remains with the Rilling version.