This opening concert to Vienna OsterKlang festival was a reproduction of sorts: on 5th April 1803 a slate of Beethoven works including the first and second symphonies, the third piano concerto and the oratorio Christus am Ölberge was performed in this very theatre. All except for the first symphony were premières, though it is astonishing to think that Beethoven’s original plans for the event were even more ambitious (it is not known what was excluded, but he was forced to cut the programme short). In any case, final preparations were chaotic and at five o’clock on the morning of the concert Beethoven was found in his living quarters behind the stage (he was at the time a composer literally in residence), furiously copying out parts for the trombones, which anecdotal evidence suggests he may have decided to add to Christus am Ölberge at the last minute. A full day of rehearsals left his musicians exhausted, at which point Prince Karl Lichnowsky, Beethoven’s patron, ordered generous provisions of food and wine for all gathered. Duly fortified, the musicians agreed to run through Christus am Ölberge once more before the evening performance, which contemporary accounts reported in mixed terms.
It’s just as well that the Vienna Philharmonic didn’t try to repeat the entire concert or else we might have all been forced to pull a Lichnowsky. But the two works they selected were the ones I would have gone for, presenting a symphony that rarely gets heard outside of full cycles and, in Christus, a dramatic oratorio unfairly labelled as of Beethoven’s poorest works (the awful Wellington’s Victory is surely in a class of its own here). The writing is close in stature to Haydn’s oratorio setting of his Seven Last Words, though Beethoven’s account of Christ’s agony in the garden avoids the Sturm und Drang and makes relatively light work of the burden of humanity’s redemption. There’s much operatic writing including a coloratura turn for the Seraph, and the final chorus is so affirmative it’s as if we leapfrogged the Crucifixion and landed somewhere in the middle of Easter Sunday.
In this performance Johan Botha tried to go against this, wringing a tense reading out of the score and raising a clenched fist for in the moments where he thought Christ ought to be suffering just a little more than the music suggests. To his credit this worked much of the time, though there were moments when his declamatory style had the opposite effect of what he intended: a bright, ringing ‘Willkommen, Tod!’ registered somewhat like ‘Oh hi, Death!’, and Franz Xaver Huber’s text, widely slammed as doggerel, doesn’t hold up at all well for having this kind of attention drawn to it. Camilla Nylund fared much better in this regard and despite some slightly pecked top notes and uneven phrasing, her pure-toned Seraph carried well. Gerald Finley, an infrequent visitor to Vienna, brought resonance and dramatic heft to the tiny part of Peter.
The Arnold Schoenberg Chor were first-rate as always, though in places their clarity of diction and focused sound worked against them in a similar way to Botha, and particularly with the dire rhyming couplet, set antiphonally, of ‘Entfliehen kann er nicht, sein wartet das Gericht’. But for all the weaknesses of the text there was a case to be made for the music here, and the Vienna Philharmonic offered a substantial account which placed the score firmly in Beethoven’s middle period. Following on from his joyless Beethoven 9 with the Vienna Symphony at the beginning of the year conductor, Philippe Jordan had led a expressively choked performance of the Second Symphony in the first half, but returned after the interval looking more relaxed – the burden of canonic weight lifted from his shoulders? – and his conducting was much less stifling in the oratorio.
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