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This Stereo and Multichannel DSD 256 recording of Beethoven: Christ on the Mount of Olives, Christus Am Olberge by Sir Simon Rattle, with acclaimed singers Elsa Dreisig, Pavol Breslik and David Soar was made during the London Symphony Orchestra’s celebration of Beethoven’s 250th anniversary.
Composed in 1803, while Beethoven was also writing the ‘Eroica’ Symphony, Christ on the Mount of Olives (Christus am Ölberge) is the composer’s only oratorio and combines the emotive force of his later Missa Solemnis with the theatre of a Bach Passion. With orchestra, chorus and soloists, it tells the story of Jesus’ prayer and arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane and also reflects the emotional pressure Beethoven was under at the time.
“When I came to the Mount of Olives, I immediately was simply puzzled. Why isn’t this piece played? Of course, it’s a mixed piece and there are weird flaws and edges but so there are in the Ninth Symphony, they’re part of the personality.
It’s a fascinating moment in his life when he was starting really to deal with his hearing loss. He’d written the Heiligenstadt Testament, where he really confessed to his suicidal thoughts on losing the single-most important ability a musician could have. There is a kind of unearthly, underground sensation of some of it, there’s also a real feeling of naive belief in the possibility of things being better. I think it is completely heaven.”
– Sir Simon Rattle
Total time: 00:45:22
Pyramix, Merging Technologies
|Original Recording Format|
Barbican, London (Jan 19 + Feb 13, 2020)
|Recording Type & Bit Rate||
|Release Date||November 13, 2020|
This is an important release, not only for the quality of its performance but also because the work is very seldom performed. In most people’s minds it falls uneasily between the categories of opera and devotional oratorio.
As Lindsay Kemp explains in his liner note, its composition was inspired by external circumstances. Oratorio was a popular art-form in late 18th century Vienna, and although Beethoven would not have known Bach’s Passions, he would certainly have known the work of Handel.
Haydn’s Creation and The Seasons, meanwhile, were contemporary hits. Yet as the awkward construction of Fidelio showed, Beethoven was not a natural dramatist: for him, the drama lay in the music, not the libretto.
Christ on the Mount of Olives – Christus am Őlberge – focused on Christ’s soul-searching in the Garden of Gethsemane, and its libretto is simply not strong enough to bear the weight of the music. But that music, as performed here, is full of beauty and splendor thanks to a brilliant chorus and a superb line-up of soloists: soprano Elsa Dreisig, tenor Pavol Breslik, and bass.
Beethoven’s only oratorio, Christ on the Mount of Olives (Christus Am Ölberge) hails from 1803 and delves into the mind of Jesus as he contemplates and ultimately accepts his passion. Such introspective melancholy finds resonance in Beethoven’s personal life, a year after poignantly revealing his struggle with deafness in the now famous Heiligenstadt Testament. The work also paved the way towards the dramatic vocal writing in Fidelio.
After receiving a lukewarm reception, the oratorio fell into obscurity, apart from the final, so-called ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ – the word ‘Hallelujah’ only appearing in the English translation – which became a favorite with Anglophone choirs in the 19th century. The questionable literary merits of the original German libretto by Franz Xaver Huber, which Beethoven disliked, (and which was subsequently reworked) did the work no favors.
Reversing the tradition of chant and polyphonic settings of the passion, Beethoven gave the role of Jesus to a tenor and that of Peter to a bass. The full chorus only sings twice, while a male chorus of soldiers and disciples appear at certain points. There are some charming arias, but the general impression is that the work’s musical parts do not add up to more than the sum of its whole.
Earlier this year in honor of the Beethoven anniversary, the LSO gave two performances to which Rattle brought energy and clarity, making light of the stresses and strains that are inevitably captured in a live recording.
Rattle’s trio of relatively young soloists does well. Slovak tenor Pavol Breslik (no stranger to Australian audiences) brings breadth of tone and depth of feeling to Jesus’ inner turmoil, only occasionally revealing some stress in his upper range. English bass David Soar portrays hot-headed Saint Peter forcefully but clearly, while French-Danish soprano Elsa Dreisig is suitably angelic. Rattle brings forth wonderfully evocative instrumental colors from the LSO, especially in the brass and wind departments, while veteran chorus director Simon Halsey elicits spirited but disciplined singing from the chorus.
If you’re seeking a fine, modern recording of this Beethoven curiosity, look no further.
This Barbican performance of the composer’s only oratorio could hardly be bettered.
A year or two ago people must have been scratching their heads at orchestras around the world trying to think of a novel and interesting way to mark Beethoven’s 250th anniversary. A complete cycle of the symphonies will have been penciled in (the Barbican is offering two, of radically different kinds), but where to go from there?
It might seem that there are no little-known works of any size by Beethoven left, but Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra set out to prove otherwise. Their choice fell on a performance of his only oratorio, Christus am Ölberge.
For a brief period, Beethoven lived in the Theater an der Wien, which had commissioned him to write an opera. Presented with the opportunity to compose for a chorus and orchestra, he sidetracked and turned out Christus am Ölberge instead — “in no more than 14 days”, he later claimed.
The premiere was given in a celebrated concert along with the first performances of the Second Symphony and Third Piano Concerto (audiences liked to get their money’s worth in those days). It is a strange piece, contemplative in its text, full of tension and purpose in the music. The soul-searching in its portrayal of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane might have suited Beethoven in his last years. As it was, one senses an opera struggling to get out, as if Beethoven were listening in on the performances in the theatre downstairs — a dry run, in its struggle from darkness into light, for his Fidelio.
What Rattle made clear is that the music is full of life. It is hard to imagine this performance being bettered. Pavol Breslik combined suppleness and strength of utterance for the tortured music of Jesus, like Fidelio in the darkness of his dungeon. Elsa Dreisig sang with brightness and purity as the seraph, hitting gleaming top notes as if she were auditioning for Mozart’s Queen of the Night. David Soar was the sturdy bass Peter and the London Symphony Chorus, not hugely taxed, was at its best.
A strength of Rattle’s leadership of the LSO is the programming of unusual works.
Mount of Olives is rarely heard. Beethoven’s prolific middle period (Eroica, Fidelio, and all the rest), about to begin, has eclipsed it. But what a striking work it is when done, as it is in this live performance, with such conviction and spirit.
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