Composer anniversaries can be a mixed blessing. As promoters present items of neglected repertoire, there’s the nagging worry that you’ll be listening to a lot of music that was neglected for perfectly good reason. But on a good day, the anniversary brings sparkling gems into the light. Last night at the Barbican, in the hands of Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra, Beethoven’s only oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives sparkled very brightly indeed.

Sir Simon Rattle and the LSO in Berg and Beethoven © Mark Allan
Sir Simon Rattle and the LSO in Berg and Beethoven
© Mark Allan

Why don’t we hear this work all the time? It’s splendidly dramatic. It exudes humanity and divinity in the shape of Christ’s doubt, fear and courage as he contemplates his impending arrest and the crucifixion that will follow. It has stirring orchestral parts, interesting choral writing and knockout solo parts for tenor and soprano.

After a powerful introduction in which the bray of trombones made a powerful impact, we heard the voice of Christ. From the first words of the recitative and into his aria “My soul within me trembles”, Pavol Breslik threw feeling into every note. The voice was warm, bright, heartfelt, with every syllable of the German crisp and distinct. His voice is a Mozartian one rather than a heavy romantic tenor and it fits this role like a glove.

Next, we had recitative and aria from the Seraph, Elsa Dreisig. Hers is an extraordinary voice, with the lilt of a gondolier’s barcarolle and the sweetness of honey anywhere in the range. It’s a voice that would make you obey any command as long as she promises not to stop singing. I’ll cavil slightly and point out that the words in this piece – “Now tremble, nature” – might make you expect a voice with a sterner edge, but the sheer joy of listening to Dreisig makes up for anything.

As Peter, David Soar performed adequately in a bass role that gives little scope: he played his full part in the trio before the final chorus.

Rattle and the LSO were on wonderful form, perfectly balanced with each other and with their soloists, precise in the fugal passages, held back when needed, thunderously exciting when let off the leash. They produced lovely string tone and Rattle was notable for how visibly he was engaged with both singers and players. A huge format London Symphony Chorus – with 145 singers listed – had been well drilled by Simon Halsey and were obviously enjoying the piece hugely.

Christ on the Mount of Olives is full of things to appreciate: there’s an anticipation of the heroism in the face of darkness that would characterise Fidelio, but there are also passages that hark back to the best of Mozart: a blistering burst of acceleration for the start of Christ’s first aria, a comic chorus of soldiers that brought to mind Monostatos’s slaves. The final celebratory chorus brought proceedings to a triumphant close.

The first half of the concert, however, had been a severe disappointment. Lisa Batiashvili gave a decent account of the solo part of Berg’s elegiac Violin Concerto, providing nice timbre and untroubled by the more challenging swoops and double stops of the second movement. But the orchestral lines were disjointed and unbalanced: the music didn’t cohere and Batiashvili often seemed to playing against the orchestra – and losing – rather than rising out of it or soaring above. The Berg concerto is a wonderful piece and deserves better.

Such an intense and memorable main section of the concert didn’t need a first half to precede it and certainly didn’t need a concerto for which the performance was lacklustre. I can’t understand why concert programmers do this and I wish they wouldn’t.


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