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
, 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.
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
Symphony, one reviewer noted that (as the informative but not
copious CD booklet notes say) “the first symphony is better than the
] 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
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.
Masterwork Index: Beethoven symphony 2