Beethoven: Cantatas / Opferlied / Meeresstille
Audio CD | Import
Cantate sur la mort de Joseph II - Cantate sur l'avènement de Leopold II - Opferlied - Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt / Judith Howard & Janice Watson, sop. - Jean Rigby, mez. - John Mark Ainsley, tén. - José van Dam, b. - Corydon Singers & Orchestra, dir. Matthew Best
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This is most apparent when you compare the Matthew Best-led forces against the competition in the main course, Cantata on the Death of Emporer Joseph II. While not well-known, this music commissioned to the 19-year-old Beethoven, with many passages presaging Fidelio, has had a distinguished recording history. The oldest version in print, from the 1950s, is a partial recording led by Erich (Carlos's dad) Kleiber who is abetted by one of the greatest singers no one's ever heard of, bass-baritone Alfred Poell. That recording is still in print. Thomas Schippers, a gifted choral conductor, recorded the score for CBS/Sony in the 1960s. Karl Anton Rickenbacher recorded a version around the same time. Brilliant's collection of 40 CDs dedicated to Beethoven contains a version. The newest recording in the catalog, released in 2008 on the Accord label, is led by Friedman Layer and performed by French forces.
The Best concoction is probably better than all these even though his best soloist, bass Jose Van Dam, would be no match for Poell had the two ever conducted a sing-off. Van Dam is the most distinguished of Best's soloists, who tend to eschew virtuosity and sing in a very English, almost "white", way. Hyperion's uncharacteristically thin recording -- which reminded me of many of Herbert von Karajan's recordings on DG -- is distant but brilliant and detailed with little bass. Best's harpsichord continuo show he's interested in period performance, something that can't be said for my preferred version.
That would be the recording led by Christian Thielemann that was released in 1997 by DG. It had two go-rounds on CD, one in a single CD version, another in a multi-CD box of Beethoven's "Large Choral Works." It is no longer available new -- copies show up on the CD aftermarket -- but I was able to download it from a service earlier this week for $8. Thielemann's 44-minute version is 4 minutes longer than Best and shows a reverance and profundity the English forces lack. While Best's team sings well, sounds good and seems to enjoy themselves, Thielemann's more deliberate, dramatic and spiritual reading is like attending the funeral of the emporer. His recording is equipped with deeper, more resonant sound, as well, and I think his singers are better.
The rest of Best's program tends to be better than the death cantata. The piece that matches its conductor's name, in my opinion, is the brief cantata Meeresstille und gluckliche Fahrt -- Calm Sea and Properous Voyage. Anyone that's sailed, or anyone that can imagine commerce by schooner in Beethoven's day, knows the title is an oxymoron. You can't have a successful voyage without wind, and a calm sea is a windless sea. Thus the quiet entrance followed by the huge bursts of sound, a mimic for the wind whipping up. The second movement is where the ship takes off and everyone is happy.
This piece has had quite a few recordings over the years. My favorite, to this point, has been one released in 1980 on a two-CD Vox box of Beethoven's overtures and occasional music conducted by Stanislaw Skrowaczewski abetted by the Minnesota Orchestra and some of the better singers from the land of 10,000 lakes incluidng Phyllis Bryn-Julson. I wish Best's forces had exhibited some of the dramatic tendencies in Joseph's death cantata they put forth in calm sea & prosperous voyage.
They did similarly in the Leopold cantata, the one Beethoven wrote for his ascension to the throne. The singing is far more committed, a tad Germanic, and more dramatic in the lesser cantata. Everyone seems less subdued, less inhibited, in that one. But they don't reach the dramatic or virtuosic heights of the Robert Bass-St. Luke's Orchestra version. Bass -- whose soloists included a young soprano named Deborah Voight -- recorded the ascension cantata in concert in Carnegie Hall in 1994 for Koch International Classics. His version is consistently more red-blooded and furious than Best's, more heroic in an Ameircan way. The discmate, another Beethoven rarity called The Glorious Moment (Der glorreiche Augenblick) is, to me, better and more enjoyable than the rest of the Hyperion program and the recording is fuller and deeper, with an occasional patron's gasp being heard during soprano Elizabeth Futral's second movement aria. Some of the choral singing gets a little screechy but that's the fuel igniting a live recording.
Unfortunately, Koch International discontinued Bass's recording some time back. It's still available in the CD used marketplace, sometimes at a pricey cost. With a $24 list price but available every day for less than half that through Amazon, Best's is still available and makes a nice coupling of what, for most people, is unknown Beethoven. Anyone that's ever enjoyed Beethoven's Fidelio, Mass, Missa Solemnis, theater music or Christ on the Mount of Olives should seek out one of these recordings with haste. Best's is a good alternative if you can't find one of the red meat versions I've recommended. Hyperion provides notes in several languages, texts and translations.
The "Joseph" and the "Leopold" cantatas date from 11790. Young Beethoven was still living in Bonn. The "Joseph" cantata, WoO87 (this designation is used for Beethoven's works without an opus number) commemorates the death of Emperor Joseph II while the companion "Leopold" cantata, WoO88, celebrates the ascension of Emperor Leopold II. These two cantatas are the greatest works of Beethoven prior to his fateful move to Vienna in 1792. The works remained unperformed during Beethoven's lifetime and were not discovered untill 1844. Brahms was greatly impressed by these works, especially the Joseph cantata. He praised its "noble pathos... its feeling and imagination, the intensity, perhaps violent in its expression, also the voice-leading and declamation, and, in the two outer sections, all the features that we may observe in and associate with his later works." (Quoted in Lewis Lockwood, "Beethoven: the Music and the Life at 65)
The Joseph cantata is the better-known of the two, and it is remarkable in its depth and in its creation of a feeling of tragedy. The work both opens and closes with a lengthy chorus, with solo quartet, which has the feel, as the liner notes point out of a chorus from a Gluck opera. The music is solemn and heroic. Beethoven used the extensive soprano aria from the Joseph cantata, "Da Steigen die Menschen an's Licht" (then mankind climbed into the light) for the finale of his opera, Fidelio.
The Leopold cantata is a joyous, celebratory work. As a young composer Beethoven uses these two cantatas, to move from sorrow and tragedy to a spirit of triumph. He would use this pattern many times in the works of his maturity. The Leopold cantata has the feel of Italian opera in its floridity and in its chief aria, the sopranos' "Fliesse, Wonnenzahre, liesse!" (Flow, tears of joy, flow!) The cantata also includes a heavily operatic trio, "You who called Joseph your father" and a finale which in both its text (Hail!Prostrate yourself, you millions) and its music is a predecessor to the chorale finale of the Ninth symphony.
The two works from late Beethoven on this CD are substantially shorter than the cantatas, and they are worthy, if relatively unfamiliar, works of the composer's final years. Beethoven composed his "Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage", opus 112, in 1815 to a text by Goethe. Mendelssohn's setting of this text is substantially better-known than Beethoven's. Beethoven's brief work is in two radically contrasting parts. The first of which, the "Calm Sea" features an almost total stillness (an "awesome, deathly stillness" as in Goethe's poem) punctuated by a dramatic outcry near the end. The finale, the "prosperous voyage" is Beethoven at his most triumphant and boisterous.
The final work on this CD is the rarely-performed Opferlied (sacrificial song) opus 121b, composed in 1824. While in Bonn, Beethoven had made an earlier setting of this text, WoO126. While infrequently performed, Beethoven's mature setting exhibits the introspective, mystical quality of much of his late music with a lovely mezzo-soprano solo and a cello obligato accompanying the chorus and orchestra.
The CD includes excellent program notes which illiminate this infrequently heard music together with full texts and translations. Listeners who want to explore some lesser-known, but hardly lesser, music of Beethoven will love this CD.