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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Christus am Ölberge, Op.85 (1803)
Elsa Dreisig (soprano), Pavol Breslik (tenor), David Soar (bass)
London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. Barbican, London, 19 January and 13 February 2020
LSO LIVE LSO0862 SACD [45.22]

Beethoven’s choral music is usually defined in terms of the twin peaks of his final years – the Choral Symphony and the Missa Solemnis – but, as Lindsay Kemp points out in his booklet notes for this release, the composer had begun his career with two substantial choral cantatas written as tributes to two successive Holy Roman Emperors (as it so happened, the last two occupants of this superannuated role), even if it appears that neither of these achieved performance during Beethoven’s lifetime. But in fact, apart from the later occasional cantata Das glorreiche Augenblick and the two masses, Beethoven’s only substantial choral work from his mature years was this oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives.
Actually, by comparison with the oratorios of Handel and Haydn, his two most illustrious predecessors in the genre, Christus am Ölberge is hardly on what we would regard as a massive scale. There are only two movements featuring the chorus, and otherwise the choral contribution is limited to a group of male singers divided into two groups representing disciples and soldiers. In fact, were it not for its religious subject, the work could perhaps be more exactly described as an operatic scena featuring three soloists in decidedly dramatically conceived roles; the two men take the parts of Jesus and Peter while the soprano assumes the consoling part of a ‘seraph’. As such it is perhaps helpful, as Lindsay Kemp suggests, to look upon the work as a sort of preview of the fully operatic Fidelio, the first version of which was to appear a couple of years later. The oratorio was composed specifically for a performance in the same concert which featured the premičres of Beethoven’s second symphony and third piano concerto; it achieved moderate success which resulted in a number of later performances during the composer’s lifetime, since when it has become something of a rarity in the concert hall, although Ebenezer Prout edited an English edition for the Victorian choral society market.

The very operatic nature of the writing for the solo singers may have had something to do with this. The part of Jesus demands a Mozartian tenor with decidedly heroic attributes – a sort of Idomeneo rather than a Tamino – and that of the seraph is even more demanding, with passages clearly intended to soar out over the chorus contrasting with high and elaborate coloratura which rises at one point to an (optional) high E; Elsa Dreisig, the soprano here, sensibly takes Beethoven’s lower alternative although she does give us the more elaborate version of her written cadenza which crowns the final phrases of the chorus of angels O Heil euch ihr Erlösen (track 6). The bass taking the role of Peter has a comparatively smaller role (and no aria) but even so he is required to span quite a wide range and match his fellow soloists in an extended trio. The choral writing is less demanding than the notoriously difficult Choral Symphony or Missa Solemnis, but even so there are extended passages where the sopranos in the final Hallelujah chorus (track 17) are required to fire away on sustained top Gs for five or six bars at a time.

Actually it is in the choral sections that this performance really catches fire, with some 150 singers giving us Beethoven on a truly grand scale. Choral works in the notoriously tricky Barbican hall have often foxed the best endeavours of recording engineers – I remarked upon the clear difficulties which they experience when reviewing the Colin Davis Berlioz cycle from that venue last year – but here the singers come across well, and the differentiation between the rumbustious soldiers who arrive to arrest Christ and the rather timorous disciples is well realised in dramatic terms as well. Both the tenor and soprano soloists aim for a Mozartean scale rather than a fully heroic presentation, which may rob some of the most emotional moments of visceral thrills but at least ensures that their command of the more elaborate passages in their music is never in doubt. Pavol Breslik is no Florestan, but his diction is good and precise even when some rivals on disc – Plácido Domingo, for example – produce more sheer glamour (but then, should Christ sound glamorous?). Elsa Dreisig pecks slightly at her higher notes, but has sufficient volume to soar over the chorus when she is required to do so. David Soar is properly rumbustious as the challenging Peter, but blends smoothly with his fellow soloists in the ensuing trio (track 14).

The orchestral sound, a little over-resonant and tubby in the opening prelude (I reviewed the disc in stereo), soon blossoms into a clarity which reflects exactly the style of a Beethoven who at that stage in his career was definitely still a classicist. Sir Simon Rattle does not attempt to over-inflate the sound, but at the same time he encourages his forces to rise to exultant heights for their final chorus, and the orchestra is of a sufficient size to balance the large number of singers (those who object to this sort of scale should bear in mind that massive performances of this kind were familiar in Vienna during this period, and indeed that an even larger choir gave the first performance of Haydn’s Creation). The tenors of the choir cover themselves in glory as the marauding soldiery (track 10).

This disc then is more than simply a souvenir of what was clearly an enjoyable evening in the concert hall (the recording was assembled from two different performances). The booklet, as always with the LSO’s own label, is a model of presentation – complete texts and translations as well as notes in English, German and French – and feature a new English translation of the libretto by Timothy Adčs which has removed later textual amendments by Christian Schreiber. Those unfamiliar with the work are urgently recommended to investigate.

Paul Corfield Godfrey



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