Even though the music of Ludwig van Beethoven forms the very basis of our repertoire, there are great many pieces in his œuvre that have fallen out of focus in the course of time. Some deservedly so, some to a puzzling effect.
The oratorio Christus am Öberge, Op. 85 (Christ on the Mount of Olives, 1803/1804/1811), quite popular in its time, began to fall out of fashion as the 19th century proceeded. As years went by, it was eventually turned into a footnote to the great choral masterpieces of Beethoven’s late period, namely the Missa solemnis (1819-23) and the Ninth Symphony (1822-24), as well as Leonore/Fidelio (1805-14).
Yet, Christus am Ölberge is a substantial work of its own right. Tremendously expressive, yet intimate, Beethoven’s score is a spellbinging portrayal of the Redeemer’s inner struggle, empowerment, and joyous triumph.
Given the rarity of oratorio, both in the concert hall and on record, Sir Simon Rattle’s choice to make Christus am Ölberge his Beethoven 250 piece has been a most welcome one indeed. Following the performances with the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus earlier this year, Rattle has now brought the piece to Berlin, for his concerts with the Berliner Philharmoniker and the Rundfunkchor Berlin this week.
Scored for three soloists, chorus and orchestra, Christus am Ölberge is based on a libretto by Franz Xavier Huber. Beethoven set it to music during the early months of 1803, while residing at Theater an der Wien. The oratorio was premierd as a part of Beethoven’s academy concert on 5 April, alongside the Second Symphony (1801-03) and the Thrid Piano Concerto (1800), both heard for the first time as well.
Immensely popular in Vienna those days, the oratorios of Haydn and Handel were obviously well-know to Beethoven. Understandably reluctant to dwell in the shadows of his great predecessors, Beethoven adopted somewhat different approach for his take on the medium.
In relation to the Biblical accounts of the story, Huber took many liberties with his libretto. There are only three dramatis personae involved, Jesus, Seraph and Petrus. In addition, there are splendid choral numbers as well, featuring angelic hosts, menacing hordes of Jesus’ captors and the mighty fellowship of disciples.
An aptly brooding overture sets the hour-long oratorio in motion, with sinister brass calls, echoed by ominously rolling timpani. Joined by rapid string figures and lyrical woodwind pasages, the stage is set for the Passiontide drama.
In the opening scene, we encounter the Redeemer in agony, terrified by the events about to pass. The Seraph appears, alongside a Heavenly host, proclaiming divine empoverment.
Cast as a tenor, Jesus is portrayed, first and foremost, as a humane figure, going through a spiritual journey from frailty and doubt to triumphant redemption. It should be noted, that Beethoven was composing Eroica (1802-04) simultaneously with the oratorio. Both works originate from Beethoven’s personal Gethsemane, the deep crisis bought forth by his inevitable loss of hearing, as manifested in the Heiligenstadt Testament.
It has been speculated that Beethoven’s choice to have a tenor singing Jesus might have provided a model for Wagner’s Parsifal (1877-82). Be that as it may, Beethoven’s heldentenor Redeemer is an absolutely intriguing one.
Jesus’ solitude is interrupted by the arrival of the Seraph. Sung by a soprano, Christ’s guardian angel is portrayed with compelling vocal bravura. Here, Beethoven evokes the spirit of Mozart, to a riveting effect.
Joined by full chorus, the Seraph sets forth to reassure Christ with a marvellous vocal tableau. Followed by a sublime duet for Christ and Seraph, the scene closes with affirmation.
Sung by tenor Benjamin Bruns and soprano Iwona Sobotka, Beethoven’s vocal lines were clad in soaring beauty. Jesus’ empowered transformation, from the aching vulnerability of the opening to valiant reassuredness, was conveyed with commintment by Bruns. Sobotka’s portrayal of the Seraph’s divine presence was clad in exquisite vocal guise, encompassing the full variety of moods, ever admirably nuanced.
The Runfunkchor, wonderfully prepared by Simon Halsey, sung with excellence. The choral canvas unraveled with exemplary clarity and presicion, to an awesome effect.
With Rattle, the astonishing Beethoven sound of the Berliner Philharmoniker was unleashed with finesse and vigour, fusing together the orchestra’s incomparable traditon and the historically informed practise. Ever in perfect accord with the soloists, the orchestra shone with dazzling colours.
Beethoven sets Jesus’ arrest to music with vivid imagination. Sung by male voices, Jesus’ capturers are engaged in contrapuntal hide-and-seek, rooted in splendid dramaturgy. Fabulously sung by the Rundfunkchor, the arrest scene was one of the many highlights of the evening.
The third soloist, Petrus appears in the final scene. Cast as a bass, Petrus is the personification of mankind, with all those burning humane emotions and motives. Sung by David Soar, who also sang the role in Rattle’s performances with the LSO, Petrus was brought to life with appropriate zeal.
The final terzetto is the dramatic culmination of the oratorio. Vengeance is turned into compassion, as Petrus’s anger is soothed by Jesus and the Seraph. Here lies the ultimate triumph of Christ. The oratorio closes with a gorgeous fugal finale for chorus and orchestra, worthy of Haydn.
With Rattle at the helm, Christus am Ölberge was given a ravishing performance. In comparison with Rattle’s maverick take with the LSO, the score sounded strikingly different with the Berliner Philharmoniker and the Rundfunkchor. At Philharmonie, a wonderfully Mozartean performance was heard, to a riveting effect.
In accord with Rattle’s Beethoven symphony cycle with the Berliners a couple of years ago, Christus am Ölberge was clad in vibrant contemporary guise, with a loving nod to the orchestra’s extraordinary past. Received with excitement and buzz by the Berlin audience, this week’s performances will, hopefully, pave the way for the oratorio’s belated re-entry into the repertoire.
Heard on the first half of the evening, Richard Strauss’s Oboe Concerto (1945/1948) came into being following a request from John de Lancie, an American soldier and the principal oboist of the Pittsburgh Symphony. Stationed in Bavaria, de Lancie visited the composer at his Garmisch home, and suggested that Strauss would write a piece for oboe. Although he initially turned down the idea, in the course if the following couple of months, Strauss wrote a full-scale concerto for oboe and small orchestra.
Strauss’s wonderful concerto pays homage to Mozart and the eighteenth century in its seemingly effortless virtuosity and splendid instrumental detail. Among the treasure chest of the composer’s late works, the concerto is a veritable gem.
Delicately scored for an orchestra of two each of flutes, clarinets, bassoons and horns, alongside a cor anglais and small string section, the ensemble is woven together with the luminous solo part by Strauss’s impeccable imagination and craft. Typically for Strauss’s late works, the scoring bears an aura of orchestral chamber music, aptly challenging for the musicians and conductor alike.
The solo part calls for a virtuoso, both in terms of technique and spirit. At the Philharmonie, the solo part was taken up by Jonathan Kelly, the principal oboe of the Berliner Philharmoniker.
The concerto is written in three interconnected movements, followed by an extended coda. Based on the traditional fast-slow-fast scheme, the musical material stems from three main ideas, recurring throughout the concerto.
The first motive, a signal-like four-note figure is introduced by the strings. The soloist enters with a flourishing second motive, leading to an extended passage for oboe and strings, eventually joined by winds and horns. The third theme is a Beethoven-like motive of three short notes followed by a long one. This motive serves as a bridge, leading to various transitions.
For his soloist, Strauss wrote two cadenzas. The first, with sublime accompaniment by pizzicato strings, follows the middle andante, whereas the second forms a link between the vivace and the 6/8 allegro coda.
Filled with allusions to all those exceedingly beautiful oboe passages found in Strauss’s œuvre, from Don Juan (1888) and Der Rosenkavalier (1911) on, the concerto is an absolute charmer. A genuinely youthful creation by its octogenerian composer.
Performed with outstanding brilliance by Kelly, the solo part was clad in sparkling raiment of colour and intricate detal. Rattle and the orchestra were a perfect match to their soloist. Strauss’s sublime orchestral fabric was evoked with nuanced excellence and sensitive delicacy.
Sir Simon Rattle, conductor
Simon Halsey, chorus master
Iwona Sobotka, soprano (Seraph)
Benjamin Bruns, tenor (Jesus)
David Soar, bass (Petrus)
Jonathan Kelly, oboe
Richard Strauss: Concerto for Oboe and Small Orchestra (1945/1948)
Ludwig van Beethoven: Christus am Ölberge, Op. 85 (1803/1804/1811)
Thursday 5 March, 8 pm
© Jari Kallio
Photos © Monika Rittershaus