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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Christus am Ölberge, Op. 85 (1802-03) [57:03]
Elegischer Gesang, Op. 118 (c. 1814) [6:52]
Hanna-Leena Haapamäki (soprano), Jussi Myllys (tenor), Niklas Spångberg (bass), Chorus Cathedralis Aboensis, Turku Philharmonic Orchestra / Leif Segerstam
rec. 2017, Turku Concert Hall, Turku, Finland
German texts with English translation included
NAXOS 8.573852 [64:07]

Christus am Ölberge, or Christ on the Mount of Olives, has never been considered one of Beethoven’s greatest works. Consequently, it has not received much exposure on disc. With its high opus number one would assume it was composed between his Sixth and Seventh Symphonies. However, Beethoven composed his sole oratorio before the Eroica and it received its first performance along with the Symphonies 1 and 2 and the Third Piano Concerto in 1803. The oratorio, though, was not published until 1811 after the composer had made various revisions and changes. The work contains some splendid music and could not have been written by anyone other than Beethoven, even with the influence of Haydn and Handel apparent. The main problem with the work stems from its rather stilted text, which concerns only Christ’s arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane before his trial and crucifixion.

I would have been happy to welcome this new performance by Leif Segerstam’s Finnish forces had I not heard an earlier one by Helmut Rilling and his Gächinger Kantorei and Bach-Collegium Stuttgart (Hänssler). Ironically, I have never been a fan of Rilling’s Bach, usually finding it too slow and on the stodgy side. These are the very characteristics of Segerstam’s Beethoven, but not Rilling’s which is much more dynamic and crisper throughout. Segerstam’s, on the other hand, reminds me more of Kent Nagano’s account on Harmonia Mundi. Rilling also has by far the best soloists with tenor Keith Lewis as Jesus, soprano Maria Venuti as the Seraph, and bass Michel Brodard in the very small bass part. Placido Domingo and Luba Orgonasova for Nagano are too operatic in the manner of nineteenth-century Italian opera. Segerstam’s soloists are better and indeed far more than adequate, even if they cannot match Rilling’s. At the same time, the Finnish orchestra with imposing brass and the chorus get the job done quite well.

If you like your Beethoven massive and monumental, Segerstam is a satisfactory choice. The Handelian final chorus with its successive fugue is familiar to Americans as the other “Hallelujah Chorus’, sung by many a church choir. The contrast between Segerstam’s heavy account and Rilling’s much more dynamic one is remarkable and this does not have as much to do with tempo as with style. Overall, Segerstam adds several minutes to Rilling’s timing. In addition, the sound, as is also true in Nagano’s recording, is too reverberant for clear understanding of the text. This is quite the opposite of Rilling’s crystal clear and incisive account. His performing forces are undoubtedly smaller than either Nagano’s or Segerstam’s, but better suited to the music in my opinion. Also, there is an apparent edit in this new recording in track 5, the Seraph’s aria, “Preist des Erlösers Güte,” where the sound is reduced at 2:17 and then resumes its higher level at 2:20.

The disc is filled out by the much later choral Elegischer Gesang (Elegiac Song), which Beethoven composed around 1814, while he was revising Fidelio, and dedicated to a friend and supporter in memory of his friend’s wife who had died three years earlier. Originally intended for four singers and either string quartet or piano, but not published until 1896, this part-song succeeds well in its choral-orchestral transcription. The performance here by both chorus and orchestra is exemplary.

Naxos has not skimped in its production values. Besides the full texts, there is a useful note on the works by Keith Anderson and biographical information on the performers. If this were the only choice for Beethoven’s oratorio, it would be an acceptable stopgap until something better came along. Rilling’s account is far superior, but may be more difficult to acquire.

Leslie Wright

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