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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II, WoO87 [38:36]
Symphony No.2 in D major, Op.36 [34:48]
Sally Matthews (soprano)
Tamara Mumford (mezzo-soprano)
Barry Banks (tenor)
Andrew Foster-Williams (bass-baritone)
San Francisco Symphony Chorus (chorus director: Ragnar Bohlin)
San Francisco Symphony
Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor)
Rec. Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, 2-3 May 2013
SFS MEDIA SFS0058 SACD [63:24]

Recorded at concerts given in the Davis Hall, San Francisco, this recording continues Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony’s multi-season Beethoven series. Rather than coupling Beethoven Symphonies together, as is often the norm, Tilson Thomas opts for the rarely heard or recorded Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II, a work without opus number that dates from 1790. Written when the composer was only 20 years old, this Cantata is by no means an immature work. What an inspiring and exciting coupling this is under the capable baton of Michael Tilson Thomas.

From the outset, one wonders why this work did not receive its first performance until 1884 (57 years after the composer’s death). The opening chorus, Todt! Todt! (Death! Death!) has a powerful impact on the listener. The playing, particularly from the San Francisco’s principal winds, is beautiful in its musical shaping. The San Francisco chorus build the tension from the start, giving real pathos and meaning to Severin Averdonk’s text.

Soloists are all first rate. Sally Matthews is on fine form, showing a real affinity for this cantata from her opening aria with chorus Da stiegen die Menschen an’s Licht (The people rose to the light). Matthews is well supported by soloists Tamara Mumford, Barry Banks and Andrew Foster-Williams, as well as the San Francisco chorus.

This cantata was new to me, and the cast on this recording show admirably why this work should be better known than it is today.

Beethoven’s 2nd Symphony is obviously well-known and regularly recorded, and listeners will no doubt have their favourite recordings of this fine work. First performed in 1803 and coupled with the 1st Symphony, one reviewer noted that (as the informative but not copious CD booklet notes say) “the first symphony is better than the later [2nd] one because it is developed with a lightness and is less forced, while in the Second the striving for the new and surprising is already more apparent. However, it is obvious that both are not lacking in surprising and brilliant passages of beauty.” Some thirty years later, we find Berlioz extolling the virtues of the Symphony: “The Scherzo is as openly cheerful and playful in its fantasy as the Andante [sic] was happily serene, for this symphony is cheerful throughout. Even the warrior-like verve of the first Allegro is entirely free of violence; one can sense only the youthful ardour of a noble heart that keeps intact the finest illusions of life.” Certainly Michael Tilson Thomas’ interpretation is testament to Berlioz’s observations of the work. The Adagio molto first movement opening, as well as the second movement Larghetto show a serenity in this sensitive interpretation, the dialogue between woodwind and string phrases being beautifully judged. The third movement Scherzo is not the quickest recorded interpretation on record, but this movement exudes lightness and joy, as is the case throughout the Symphony.

People who initially think that this is a strange coupling should give this CD a try, as the contrast between the pathos of the Cantata and the joyousness of the Symphony is a masterstroke of programme planning. These first-rate interpretations are matched by a superbly balanced recording. This is a highly recommended release.

Mark Hartt-Palmer

Masterwork Index: Beethoven symphony 2