Album review: Splendid second coming of Beethoven’s passiontide masterstoke with Rattle and the Londoners

Among the Ludwig van Beethoven oeuvre, the passiontide oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives (Christus am Ölberge, 1803/1804/1811) is a bafflingly under-performed masterstroke. 

Although overshadowed by the composer’s late choral masterpieces, Missa solemnis 1819-23) and the Ninth Symphony (1822-24), Beethoven’s only foray into the realm of oratorio is a compelling mixture of drama and intimacy, looking forward to Leonore (1805) and its final guise as Fidelio (1814). Thus, Christ on the Mount of Olives is both a missing piece of a puzzle and a brilliant work of its own right. 

While Franz Xavier Huber’s libretto may not be in league with the finest German poetry of the era, it is nevertheless strikingly human setting of Christ’s dark night of the soul. With all its deviations from the Biblical sources, Huber’s setting speaks to the contemporary listener with moving directness. 

As for the music itself, Beethoven’s thorough inspiration is evident throughout the score, written with some haste during the early months of 1803, as an inauguration of the composer’s residency at Theater an der Wien. Christ on the Mount of Olives was premiered as the conclusion of Beethoven’s academy concert in April 1803, alongside the first performances of The Second Symphony (1801-03) and Third Piano Concerto (1800). 

In Beethoven’s lifetime, the oratorio was revived on several occasions. The score was first published in 1811, followed by somewhat active performance tradition extending into the latter half of the 19th century. However, as the closing of the century draw near, Christ on the Mount of Olives had fallen out of fashion. As performances became scarce, the score was turned into little-known curiosity.

From the late 1950s on, the oratorio has been recorded every now and then, most notably by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra et al. in 1964 as well as Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Concentus Musicus Wien et al. in 2007. The latter was only first released in 2016, as a part of Sony Classical’s Complete Harnoncourt box.

Given the lengthy neglect of Christ on the Mount of Olives, the news of the oratorio being performed in London and on tour by Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra in the winter of 2020 were most welcome indeed. 

Teaming up with the marvellous London Symphony Chorus and a fabulous trio of soloists, soprano Elsa Dreisig, tenor Pavol Breslik and bass David Soar, the LSO and Rattle gave the first outing at their Barbican home in January, followed by further performances on their Middle-European tour throughout January and February.

To my utmost delight, I was able to catch the tour in Hamburg, enjoying a life-affirming performance at Elbphilharmonie on 18 February. Ever since that evening, I’ve been looking forward to this recording. 

Sir Simon Rattle, Choral Director Simon Halsey and the members of the London ymphony Orchestra onstage at Elbphilharmonie after a performance of Christ on the Mount of Olives on 18 February. © Daniel Dittus

Made in conjunction with the two Barbican performances on 19 January and 13 February, the new SACD recording is, without question, one of the finest of the Rattle era so far. 

While the LSO has been unbeatable with the 20th century and contemporary repertoire for ages, with notable forays into the romantic era, especially with Sir Colin Davis’s astounding Berlioz performances, the name of Beethoven might not be equally associated with the orchestra. 

However, the recent Mendelssohn and Schumann symphony cycles conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner, alongside several projects with Rattle, ranging from Rameau to Brahms, the LSO has begun covering the 18th and early 19th century repertoire with new intensity and insight over the past six years or so. 

With Gardiner, the orchestra has developed its own branch of historically informed practice, also endorsed by Rattle. In similar vein, the London Symphony Chorus, guided by their marvellous Chorus Director Simon Halsey, has gained more nuance and expressivity in the earlier repertoire too. 

The LSO Live recording of Christ on the Mount of Olives combines the best of both worlds with its modern-instrument realization, rooted in historically informed tendencies.      

Beethoven’s score bears obvious family relationship with Haydn and Mozart, albeit ever reflected through the composer’s personal idiom. In the distance, one can also hear echoes of Handel, whose oratorios were frequently performed in Vienna during Beethoven’s lifetime, alongside Haydn’s The Creation (1797-98) and The Seasons (1799-1801). 

Despite his influences, Beethoven’s take on the oratorio is more subtle and intimate, reflecting the universal through the personal. Written simultaneously with the Eroica Symphony (1802-04), both works reflect the composer’s personal crisis resulting from his irreversibly deteriorating hearing. 

As manifested in the Heiligenstadt Testament, dated on 6 October 1802, Beethoven found himself isolated and cornered by his ”malady”, with no escape but suicide or artistic conviction. In the end, he resorted to the latter, composing himself out of suicide with the symphony and the oratorio. 

Though his personal suffering, Beethoven must have identified with Christ’s existential solitude in Gethsemane. The simplicity and straightforwardness of Huber’s libretto evokes an intensive musical response from the composer, as demonstrated by the splendidly touching drama of Beethoven’s writing. 

The score opens with a dark-hued orchestral introduction, aptly setting the stage for Christ’s ensuing solitary prayer. A hollow four-note figure for bassoons and brass, marked grave summons the music into being. The full orchestra joins in the ensuing adagio, building up to a slowly unfolding canvas of anguished loneliness.

From the opening page on, one is struck by the nuanced phrasing and vivid orchestral colour, yielding to a grippingly vivid account of Christ’s suffering. With Rattle and the LSO, the introduction is clad in aptly dark-hued sonorities, arising from the gorgeously dramatic orchestral fabric.

Tenor Pavol Breslik as Jesus at Elbphilharmonie. © Daniel Dittus

Jesus’ prayer ensues, in the guises of a recitative and an aria. In the score, the Redeemer is cast as a tenor, an unusual choice, pre-echoing Wagner’s Parsifal (1877-82). Pavol Breslik, who sang Tamino in Rattle’s 2013 Baden-Baden production of The Magic Flute (1791), portrays Jesus’ struggle with heartfelt frailty and intensity, yielding to an ever-sensitive and detailed reading. With Rattle and the LSO ling and breathing with him from bar to bar, the listener is thus lead to the very core of the inner drama. 

A timpani roll heralds the arrival of the Seraph, Jesus’ Guardian Angel. Wondrously sung by Elsa Dreisig, whose debut with Rattle at the 2017 season opening in Berlin was nothing short of sensational. Since that unforgettable outing of The Creation, she collaborated with Rattle again in 2018, as Diane in Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie (1733/1742/1757) at the Berlin Staatsoper

Seraph’s recitative and aria are filled with compassion and empowerment, compellingly conveyed by Dreisig, with perfect support from Rattle and the orchestra. Joined by the fabulous London Symphony Chorus as an angelic host, the second scene is brought to an uplifting close. 

At the heart of the oratorio lies the dialogue between Jesus and the Seraph, beautifully portrayed by Breslik and Dreisig. Filled with newly-found assuredness, Jesus is transformed into heldentenor, ready to face his capturers. 

One of the most memorable musical moments of the central dialogue is the Seraph’s utterance of God’s words, clad in the guise of a solemn chorale, accompanied by the three trombones, to a stunning effect. 

Following Jesus’ empowerment, the inner drama is turned into stage-like action, as the host of Roman soldiers approaches Gethsemane. The chorus has a splendid double role here, portraying not only the menacing Roman host but giving voice to the frightened disciples as well. 

With Rattle, the LSO and the LSC provide the listener with a quasi-operatic tableau par excellence, filled with enthralling suspense and sonic thrill. 

In the midst of all this turmoil, Petrus appears to defend Jesus. Sung by the marvellous bass David Soar, Petrus, with his temper and vengeance, is the embodiment of our human emotions and reactions. Soothed by Jesus and the Seraph, with their sermon on peace and forgiveness, Petrus becomes the witness of Jesus’ final triumph over the evil. 

Thus fulfilling his work, Jesus is taken away by the Romans, escorted by a ravishing hymn of praise by the choir of angels, leading to the rousing finale fugue. With resounding joy from the enraptured chorus and the orchestra, brilliantly paced by Rattle, Christ on the Mount of Olives is brought to its astounding close. 

A top-class recording on every level, the extraordinary performance is well-served by the vivid engineering of the LSO Live team. A combination of precision and ambience, the SACD sonics are clad with apt warmth and transparency. 

Rattle and the LSO performing Christ on the Mount of Olives at Elbphilharmonie in February. © Daniel Dittus

As a footnote, it should be mentioned that a couple of weeks after the LSO tour, Rattle conducted Christ on the Mount of Olives in Berlin too, with the Berlin Philharmonic, the Rundfunkchor and another wonderful trio of soloists, Iwona Sobotka, Benjamin Bruns and David Soar.

The Berlin performance, incidentally my last live endeavour before lockdown, now available via the Digital Concert Hall, provides an interesting counterpart to the LSO et al. production, with its more Mozartean approach to the score.

The preference between the two productions, if there is one, is a personal one, given the invigorating exellence of both outings.

In any case, the new LSO album is to be counted among the most splendid highlights of the Beethoven anniversary year. May it herald the second coming of this extraordinary passiontide score. 

London Symphony Orchestra 

Sir Simon Rattle, conductor

London Symphony Chorus

Simon Halsey, choral director

Elsa Dreisig, soprano

Pavol Breslik, tenor

David Soar, bass

Ludwig van Beethoven: Christ on the Mount of Olives, Op. 85 (1803/1804/1811)

Recorded at the Barbican Centre, London, January & February 2020  

LSO Live LSO0826 (2020), 1 SACD

© Jari Kallio 

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