Beethoven inspires, in music, text and performance

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven:  Reisha Adams (soprano), Rachel Starritt (piano), Royal Welsh College Chamber Choir, Royal Welsh College Chamber Orchestra/ David Jones (conductor). Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 10.02. 2016.(GPu)

Beethoven, ‘Ah! Perfido’, Op.65; Choral Fantasia in C minor, Op.80

This concert by (mostly) students of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama ‘remembered’ a famous (one might almost say ‘infamous’) concert which took place more than two hundred years ago. This was Beethoven’s ‘Academy’ of his work held in the Theater an der Wien in Vienna on December 22nd 1808, presenting Ah! Perfido, the Fifth and Sixth symphonies, the Fourth Piano Concerto, Parts of the Mass in C (op.86) and the Choral Fantasia. Some of the works in this hugely ambitious programme were getting either their first public performances or their first Viennese performances. Quite apart from the daunting length of the programme, the concert had other problems. The court musicians were committed to a benefit concert in the Burgtheater on the very same night, so Beethoven had to make do with an inferior and, to some extent ad hoc, orchestra. In any case the works were badly under-rehearsed and Beethoven’s increasing deafness made for problems of organisation and communication. It was a bitterly cold night and the heating in the venue was seriously inadequate. The Choral Fantasia was written in the last few days before the concert (Beethoven improvised most of the piano part on the night) and the orchestra and choir were seriously unfamiliar with much in the work. It was, thus, hardly surprising that the performance of the piece (intended as the climax of the programme) broke down in confusion and had to be restarted. Ah! Perfido suffered too. The scheduled soloist was the experienced Anna Milder, but Beethoven had a quarrel with the man she was about to marry, Peter Hauptmann, and she withdrew. She was replaced by the younger and much less experienced Josephine Killitschy who, according to one account “trembled more than she sang” on the night of the concert. Certainly it is a demanding work.

Fortunately, the performance under review was clearly very well prepared. The soprano Reisha Adams (who graduated from the College’s Masters in Opera Performance in 2012, having been a postgraduate student at the College since 2008, and who has since been studying at the National Opera Studio in London and gaining professional experience with Glyndebourne Festival Opera, Welsh National Opera and Scottish Opera) acquitted herself with far more assurance and success than Miss Killitschy appears to have managed in 1808. If the pianist in the Choral Fantasia, the second year undergraduate Rachel Starritt, was daunted by the thought of sitting, as it were, on Beethoven’s piano stool, she certainly didn’t show it. To judge from the biographical note in the programme for this concert, Miss Starritt is a young woman of many talents; she is a clarinettist and a chorister, as well as a pianist, she writes poetry and fiction and speaks four languages (she is also blind – for which difficulty absolutely no special allowance needs to be made in responding to and praising her skills and musicianship as a pianist).

The two works from the vast programme of 1808 which made up this concert point in two opposite directions, as it were. Ah! Perfido was first performed in Prague in November 1796, when it was sung by Josepha Duschek. It owes something to Beethoven’s song ‘Seufzer eines Ungeliebten’, probably written a year or two earlier. As a sung ‘soliloquy’ for an abandoned/betrayed woman, Ah! Perfido belongs in a long line that goes back (at least) to Monteverdi’s Lamento d’Arianna and which runs forward from there to Beethoven through a great many seventeenth century ‘laments’ influenced by the example of Monteverdi and through many operatic set-pieces in the following century. Ah! Perfido is a late, and unusually powerful example of what the Eighteenth Century called an aria monumentale. In terms of the recent musical past, Ah! Perfido echoes Mozart’s Bella mia fiamma (K.528) – also written for Duschek – another lament, for loss and approaching death, rather than betrayal. Part of Beethoven’s text (the recitative) is taken from Metastasio’s libretto Achillo in Sciro, set by Domenico Sarro in 1735; the words of the rest of Ah! Perfido (the aria) are from an unknown hand.

If this dramatic scena looks backward, being Beethoven’s ‘take’ on a form that was centuries old and attempted by hundreds of composers before him, the Choral Fantasia essentially looks forward, both in the sense that it attempts something virtually unprecedented and that it anticipates Beethoven’s own Ninth Symphony. The connection between the Choral Fantasia and the later symphony has often been noticed and discussed. What has had less attention is that the theme which, in slightly different forms, is shared by the two works actually has an earlier Beethovenian precedent too. It is essentially the theme of his song ‘Gegenliebe’, written in the mid 1790s. It is one of the hallmarks of certain great artists that their works evidence a constant process of self-revision – to take but one analogous example, one might compare the ways in which Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors (c.1594), Twelfth Night (1601) and The Tempest (1611/12) are related; built out of essentially the same materials (a storm and shipwreck which separate and disperse a family, and the eventual reunion of that family), across a period of years those materials are reconsidered by the author with increasing understanding, a fairly crude farce becoming, first, a superbly balanced romantic (tragi)comedy and, last, a profound allegorical romance. Beethoven similarly reworks his materials, re-shaping and discovering more and more beauty and emotional gravity in his own ideas. For all its obvious and relative limitations – “As the precursor of the later masterly set of symphonic variations, the Choral Fantasia seems very lightweight indeed” (Denis McCaldin)  – the Choral Fantasia has powerful, partly realised, seeds within it. The texts set in ‘Gegenliebe’, the Choral Fantasia and the last movement of the Ninth Symphony would make a fascinating comparative study, all of them in related, but different ways ratifications of the value of love and forgiveness (something quintessentially characteristic of much in Beethoven’s music, if not in his life!).

Reisha Adams has an authoritative stage presence and a voice of considerable power; her reading of the opening of Ah! Perfido was imbued with a strong dramatic sense (so much so that felt the impulse to conjure up mentally a contextual scene and scenario). In the more reflective passages, as in the verse “Per pietà, non dirmi addio! . . . lo d’affanno morirò” she was a little less convincing, though becoming fully persuasive and compelling, once more, in the turbulent and emotionally conflicted final lines, “Ah crudel! Tu vuoi ch’io mora! . . . Non son degna di pietà?” Overall, this was a fine performance of a notoriously difficult piece, by a young singer very early in her career (and, it is worth noting, her Italian diction was excellent); it is not hard to imagine that in a few years she will be established as an opera singer of distinction. As I listened to, and admired, her singing, I found myself thinking that she might eventually be a Wagnerian of some distinction. Reading the concert programme on my way home I found the following in her biographical note: “Most recently she performed Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder with chamber orchestra, conducted by Anthony Negus”. Miss Adams’ future career will be very interesting to follow. Throughout Ah! Perfido the work of the orchestra was very supportive, the conducting of David Jones every bit as well judged, intelligent, sympathetic, firm but encouraging, as one has come to expect after hearing him many times in recent years (Mr. Jones is Conductor in Residence at the Royal Welsh College).

The youthful orchestra was similarly impressive in the Choral Fantasia, and the (similarly youthful) singers of the choir were assured in their work. But the ‘star’ of the piece was undoubtedly the remarkable Rachel Starritt. In the lengthy piano introduction, which Beethoven improvised at the 1808 performance, the later written version still has, presumably deliberately, an improvisatory air about it, as if we were overhearing the composer working his way into the work. Starritt captured this quality superbly, her playing, for all its authority, fluency and clarity, retaining a sense of the spontaneous. (It may be relevant to note that in addition to her classical studies, Miss Starritt studies with the fine jazz pianist Huw Warren). When it came to the statement of, and variations upon the theme, the work of pianist and orchestra alike had a quality of controlled excitement, a sense of future potential (though, of course, it may only be with the advantage of hindsight that one hears this). Throughout Strarritt’s playing was remarkably communicative. The youthfulness of all concerned – given their abilities – was a positive advantage here; I have talked to seasoned professionals who can be quite dismissive of the Choral Fantasia, seeing it only as an imperfect attempt at something to be achieved fully later, as structurally primitive and (surprisingly) even a little vulgar. Such cynicism can readily permeate a performance. Here the essential optimism of the work – as, in the words of the closing chorus, “Nacht und Stürme warden licht [Night and storm turn to light]” and we approach the all-embracing ‘Joy’ of which the Ninth Symphony sings so radiantly (and with greater sophistication) – seemed embodied in the youthful freshness of the performers.

From ‘Gegenliebe’ to the Ninth Symphony, through Ah! Perfido and the Choral Fantasia, Beethoven chose to set texts about the ‘ideal’ of mutual love. In the sung text of the Choral Fantasia (probably written, in some haste, by Christoph Kuffner, working on hints from Beethoven himself) such questions of mutual love are handled in less purely ‘human’ terms in lines which speak of “unseres Lebens Harmonies” and tell of how “Fried und Freude gleiten freudlich / wie der Wellen Wechselspiel”. We are beginning to approach the ‘cosmic’ scale of the imagery in Schiller’s poem which Beethoven was to set later – where every creature can find joy in nature, and the movements of comic bodies and human individuals are analogous. Immature as both Ah! Perfido and the Choral Fantasia may be by the standards of the Ninth Symphony, they both show us a Beethoven reaching towards such sentiments and the musical means to express them.

Attending this concert was an inspiring experience in a number of ways. To encounter such musicianship (not mere technical competence) from such young musicians was inspiring. To hear these works, with which I was relatively unfamiliar, sung and played with such conviction inspired thoughts of how they connected with other areas of Beethoven’s work, inspired a whole complex of thoughts and set my mind buzzing throughout my train journey home (and beyond). The ideas I have struggled to articulate above reflect that during – and post-concert – experience.

Glyn Pursglove

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