BEETHOVEN: Christus am Olberge – Maria Venuto, sop./ Keith Lewis, tenor/ Michel Brodard, bass/ Gachinger Kantorei Stuttgart/ Bach-Collegium Stuttgart/ Helmuth Rilling – Hänssler Classic 98.030, 53:52 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
Beethoven wrote this oratorio when 33 at a record setting pace—a mere fourteen days in 1803. The libretto, by one Frank Xaver Huber, was close to a scandal as the man was so inept at what he did. The composer vehemently defended the entire work, going to the mat with the publishers and using the full force of his popularity and fame in order to get his way. In fact, he thoroughly revised the piece the following year in 1804. But evidently the published version in 1811 makes little, if any, reference to these changes.
As is, his biographer Schindler, known for exaggeration and just plain falsification, made claims that Beethoven had indeed revised the work, though musicologists were disinclined to believe him. Until 1970, that is, when one Alan Tyson in an article proved that Schindler was correct. There are only fragments of the original version left, sketches and various single pages of this and that, so a reconstruction is nearly impossible. Beethoven did give the first performance and the reaction was mixed, most critics remarking that the piece, while it had some good moments, was far below Beethoven’s usual standards. Time has since seemed to reinforce that opinion, as there have been relatively few performances or recordings. I think that the 1964 Ormandy with Philadelphia is still probably the best one done. But this Rilling, from 1994, and released at least once more in 2004 and now, is very competitive with exceptionally fine sound. I have learned to trust Rilling over the years; he always takes research and period practice into consideration but is never dogmatic and almost always sticks with contemporary instruments. I can’t think offhand of any bad recording he has done. This one makes as good a case for this “dramatic oratorio” (Beethoven hoped to notch the medium up a bit and get away from Haydn) as any modern recording, and is easily recommendable as such. Plus, the music is very good in places, even though he wasn’t as consistent as what we now expect.
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