BEETHOVEN: Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II; Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 36 – Sally Matthews, sop./ Tamara Mumford, mezzo-sop./ Barry Banks, tenor/ Andrew Foster-Williams, bass-bar./ San Francisco Sym. Chorus (all in Cantata)/ San Francisco Sym./ Michael Tilson Thomas – SFS Media multichannel SACD SFS 0058, 1:13:24 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] (11/11/13) ****:
This performance was recorded live in 96K/24-bit multichannel audio in Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco in May of this year, and is part of the multi-season effort by MTT and the Symphony on behalf of performing and recording works of Beethoven. We’ve recently reviewed both the 7th and 9th Beethoven symphonies from this source.
The San Francisco Symphony Chorus, led by Ragnar Bohlin, has 30 professional and 128 volunteer members, and was featured on the 2010 SFS Media SACD of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, which won three Grammys, including Best Choral Performance. Beethoven was only 19 when he composed the Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II. It might be considered Beethoven’s first masterpiece. The Emperor of both the Austrian and Holy Roman Empires died in 1790. Beethoven was a violist in the court chapel and theater in Bonn, and like others felt that Joseph II was the embodiment of the Enlightenment and was motivated by genuine grief. Beethoven received a commission to create the cantata, but it was never performed at the ceremony and the score was unknown until 1884, when it showed up at an auction.
The work opens with ominous string basses and cellos, and the chorus sings “Tot!” (Dead). Some of Beethoven’s musical ideas in this cantata show up later in his symphonies, namely the Third, Sixth and Seventh, as well as some of the overtures. Arias in the work for soprano and for bass show the influence of Mozart. The soprano aria includes the words that because of Joseph, “the earth revolved more happily around the sun.” Beethoven also used some of the third section of the cantata in the second act of his later opera Fidelio.
The Second Symphony may be early Beethoven, but it is less remindful of Haydn and Mozart than the First, and is quite a large-scale and muscular work, the latter brought out clearly by MTT and his San Francisco players. Though the first two symphonies are not as well-known as the rest, they are still Beethoven masterpieces. At this time the composer’s deafness was beginning to plague him, and it is amazing that one cannot find a sign of it in the work. The music is quite spectacular, and full of the usual Beethoven trademarks, especially in the first movement. The fourth and closing movement is uptempo and provides a rousing conclusion. There are really no tunes one might hum, as with some of the later symphonies, but the Second demonstrates how Beethoven revolutionized the symphonic form. I didn’t do any A/B comparisons with some of the other Second Symphony recordings out there, though I’m fairly partial to Haitink’s complete Beethoven symphonies on LSO SACDs, but this one preserves the excellent reputation of MTT’s Beethoven series and is recorded in the very best sonics.