BEETHOVEN: Christ on the Mount of Olives, Op. 85 – London Symphony Orchestra & Chorus/ Sir Simon Rattle – LSO

by | Dec 8, 2020 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

BEETHOVEN: Christ on the Mount of Olives, Op. 85 – Else Dreisig, soprano. Pavol Breslik, tenor/ David Soar, bass/ London Symphony Chorus/ London Symphony Orchestra/ Sir Simon Rattle – LSO SACD LOS0862, 45:22 (11/13/20) [Distr. by PIAS] ****:

The 1803 oratorio, Christ on the Mount of Olives, Beethoven’s sole incursion into a (Viennese) genre dominated by Handel and Haydn, has a fascinating genesis. With a relatively weak text by Franz Xaver Huber, the drama addresses Jesus’ soulful examination of his duty in the Garden of Gethsemane just prior to his arrest and inevitable crucifixion. The humanism of the context arises from Jesus’ personal viewpoint in his decision, accepting his hard fate. Tenor Pavol sings the role of Jesus, with soprano Else Dreisig as a heavenly seraph, and bass David Soar as Peter.

Sir Simon Rattle performed the oratorio twice – 19 January and 13 February 2020 at the Barbican Centre, London, and this recording draws upon both renditions. The bright energy of the occasion – its florid and richly colored orchestral parts and virtuoso solo parts, along with effective choral writing – bespeak a confidence in Beethoven that belies his decision to withhold its formal publication; hence, its late opus number. At the same time, Beethoven’s 1802 diagnosis of his oncoming deafness may well have set up an analogy for the lonely test of faith that had accosted Jesus; hisHeiligenstadt Testament, composed in  a suburb of Vienna, testifies to his sense of isolation and subjective grief, his own sense of “crucifixion.”

Portrait Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven,
by Hornemann

We must admire the quality of the vocalists in this performance, especially soprano Elsa Dreisig, whose Seraph enjoys a broad, coloratura tessitura and a clear, resonant chest tone.  Her work in the “O Heil euch ihr Erloesten,” Hail to the Redeemed, in collaboration with a brisk and articulate Chorus, proves compellingly virtuosic. Tenor Pavol Breslik communicates a warm sincerity in his personification of Christ, especially as Jesus moves from a passive victim to an activist, committed to deterring Peter from exacting revenge against the oppressors. The dramatic writing often presages Beethoven’s later style in his opera Fidelio, and the choral writing, too, anticipates the massive outbursts in theMissa Solemnis.The role of Peter remains restricted, almost cosmetic, but bass David Soar has a good, extended moment in the recitative and trio just prior to the final chorus, wherein he exclaims, “This insolent band shall not go unpunished. . . .Fury rages in my breast,” in a vocal style close to that of Osmin in Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio.  

The London Symphony responds beautifully to the disparate requirements of balance and individual, instrumental voicings, especially in the brass and woodwinds. The warm, even inflamed, string tone comes to us courtesy of producer Andrew Cornall.  Listen to the shimmering, fugato strings in the final chorus while “Praise him, angel choirs, in jubilation!” resounds in spiritual triumph. Given the event of Beethoven’s 250th anniversary, this performance fills a place in modern recording history long occupied – in my personal litany of important sound documents – by Hermann Scherchen in Vienna (1963) with Jan Peerce and Maria Stader. Simon has revived a rare Beethoven masterwork for our collective reconsideration.

—Gary Lemco

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