One of the most intriguing aspects of Beethoven 250 celebrations manifests itself with performances of those rarely heard pieces outside our standard repertoire. While some of these pieces are understandably forgotten, there is at least one borderline masterpiece among the neglected works, namely Beethoven’s only oratorio, Christus am Ölberge (1803/1804/1811).
Composed during Beethoven’s residence at Theater an der Wien, and premiered as a part of an academy concert in April 1803, alongside the Second Symphony (1801-03) and the Thrid Piano Concerto (1800), the oratorio was fairly succesful during Beethoven’s lifetime, as demostrated by several early performances.
While Christus am Ölberge looks forward to Leonore (1805) and, eventually, to its final guise as Fidelio (1814), the oratorio is a substantial piece in itself. During those early years of the 19th century, the two great oratorios by Haydn, The Creation (1797-98) and The Seasons (1799-1801) were exceedingly popular in Vienna, alogside several oratorios by Handel.
Unlike his predecessors, Beethoven set out to write an oratorio of unique intimacy. Based on a libretto by Franz Xavier Huber, Christus am Ölberge was composed with some haste during the early months of 1803, while Beethoven was also working on the Eroica Symphony (1802-04).
While Huber’s text may not be counted among poetic masterstrokes, it does provide an intimate, human setting of Christ’s dark night of the soul. From our contemporary point of view, Huber’s text, with all its deviations from Biblical sources, bears immediate communicativeness, intensified by Beethoven’s inspired setting.
For Beethoven, the existential questions of the Passiontide text touched also a more personal ground. As demonstrated by his Heiligenstadt Testament, Beethoven was going through a profound personal crisis, rooted in the looming tragedy of his inevitable loss of hearing.
The libretto calls for three soloists. In Beethoven’s score, Jesus is not sung by a baritone or a bass, but a tenor. It has been speculated, that Beethoven’s highly unusual choice could have served as a model for Wagner’s great final tenor role, Parsifal.
Be that as it may, Beethoven’s musical portrayal of the Redeemer is profoundly human, both fragile and heroic.
The other extensive solo part, the Seraph, or Jesus’ guardian angel, is sung by a soprano. The bass soloist has a less demanding task, for the third solo part, Petrus, is featured in the final section only. The chorus sings multiple roles, from the angelic host all the way to the soldiers arresting Jesus, and beyond.
In the course of the 19th century, Christus am Ölberge, though published in 1811, gradually fell out of fashion. Shadowed by Beethoven’s mature choral masterpieces, the early oratorio fell into oblivion. Though occasionally performed, it remained as a curiosity. Although committed to disc on a couple of occasions, with varying success, Christus am Ölberge is a little-known score by a well-known composer.
In this respect, Sir Simon Rattle’s commitment to perform Christus am Ölberge with the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus has been one of the most thrilling choices of programming for the Beethoven year. First performed at the Barbican Centre in January, Rattle and the Londoners are currently on a Middle-European tour with the oratorio.
On Tuesday, Christus am Ölberge was heard at the Elbhilharmonie in Hamburg, with soprano Elsa Dreisig, tenor Pavol Breslik and bass David Soar as soloists.
The fifty-minute oratorio begins with a splendid orchestral introduction, featuring formidably dramatic parts for three trombones, ominous timpani effects, rapid string figures and airy winds. Setting the mood perfectly, the overture is a wonderful mini-drama in itself. Performed with extraordinary intensity and clad in gorgeous sonorities, the Passiontide drama was wonderfully set in motion by Rattle and the LSO.
Jesus’ recitative and aria ensue, depicting the Redeemer in his darkest hour, in solitude, in both physical and metaphysical sense. The Seraph appears, alongside a Heavenly host, to restore Jesus’ courage to tread the thorny road paved for him.
Luminously sung by Breslik and Dreisig, the meeting of Jesus and the Seraph bears admirable immediacy. The London Symphony Chorus performed with commanding authority, precision and purity, to a dazzling effect.
Beethoven’s choral writing is ever inspired and cleverly constructed, with a nod towards his predecessors, Handel, Haydn and Mozart alike. Despite the shortcomings in the text, both the solo lines and the choral parts are clad in spirited guise throughout.
The arrest of Jesus is a dramatic scene par excellence, featuring spellbinding contrapuntal textures. Rousingly sung by the LSC male voices, Rattle’s intense pacing had a gripping effect.
Christus am Ölberge closes with a terzetto, including Petrus, followed by the final chorus. A key moment in the drama ensues, as Jesus commands Petrus to put down his sword, and cool his anger. With compassion thus overcoming hate, the road to salvation is open. Marvellously sung by the three soli, the terzetto was a treat.
Beethoven’s final chorus builds up to an apt climax for the oratorio. With Christ’s work fulfilled, the jubliant choral parts soar, accompanied by full orchestra. With Rattle, the LSO and the LSC provided a life-affirming ending for Christus am Ölberge, resounded by the gorgeous Elbphilharmonie acoustics.
Although we are not yet far into the Beethoven year, it is not too early to say, that this production of Christus am Ölberge, a labour of love from Rattle and his London forces, will be one of the absolute highlights of the anniversary year. Hopefully these performances and a forthcoming album release will pave the way for the re-establishment of this outstanding piece into the repertoire.
As a fitting coupling, Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto (1935) was heard on the first half, with Lisa Batiashvili as soloist. Written for the memory of Manon Gropius, the daughter of Alma Mahler and Walter Gropius,Berg’s final completed score is one of the greatest violin concertos of the 20th century.
Cast in two movements, each further divided into two main sections, the concerto is a shattering journey through a soundscape of sorrow and, eventually, solace. Musically speaking, Berg’s eloquent score travels a full circle, as the concerto opens and closes with the same musical material.
Conceived as an instrumental requiem, the score fuses together diverse sonic identities, including, famously, a Bach chorale Es ist genug. A ravishing mixture of dodecaphony and tonality, the Violin Concerto is an astounding creation.
At Elbphilharmonie, the demanding solo part was performed with flawless virtuosity by Batiashvili, with Rattle and the LSO tackling the orchestral textures with luminous transparency and admirable sensitivity.
On a personal level, Tuesday’s performance, albeit wonderful in every respect, did not quite reach the one-of-a-kind depths of Isabelle Faust’s unique reading with the LSO and Rattle at the Barbican in January 2018. Yet, this is a highly subjective statement, a footnote to a top-class performance.
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle, conductor
Lisa Batiashvili, violin
London Symphony Chorus
Simon Halsey, chorus master
Elsa Dreisig, soprano (Seraph)
Pavol Breslik, tenor (Jesus)
David Soar, bass (Petrus)
Alban Berg: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, ’To the Memory of an Angel’ (1935)
Ludwig van Beehtoven: Christus am Ölberge (1803/1804/1811)
Tuesday 18 February 2020, 8 pm
© Jari Kallio
Photos © Daniel Dittus