Berg and Beethoven were served to perfection at the Barbican by soloists, chorus, Simon Rattle and LSO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven 250 – Berg, Beethoven: Lisa Batiashvili (violin), Elsa Dreisig (soprano), Pavol Breslik (tenor), David Soar (bass), London Symphony Chorus and London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (conductor). Barbican Hall, 19.1.2020. (AK)

LSO’s Christus am Ölberge (c) Candice Wittion

Berg – Violin Concerto

Beethoven – Christus am Ölberge (Christ on the Mount of Olives)

This year’s Beethoven celebrations – honouring Beethoven’s 250th birthday – brought Beethoven’s only oratorio, Christus am Ölberge, to our attention. Composed in 1803, it was Beethoven’s first choral work to have a performance. (His only two vocal works of substance, two cantatas written in 1790, are not known to have reached performance stage.)  Christus am Ölberge premiered on 5th April 1803 and was in repertoire during Beethoven’s lifetime. However, for whatever reason, since then this oratorio seems to have dropped out of awareness. I have never heard it and, as I understand, all performers at this concert were also new to it.

I thoroughly enjoyed Christus am Ölberge; hopefully it will not disappear from concert life again. It does need two truly virtuoso – as well as musical – solo singers and an excellent chorus, especially in the men’s section. Composed for three singers, chorus and orchestra, the text (by Franz Xaver Huber) focuses on Christ’s agonising thought processes while in the Garden of Gethsemane, just before his arrest. The story is told by the Seraph (soprano), Jesus (tenor), Peter (bass) and the chorus of soldiers/disciples/angels. The musical material foreshadows Fidelio, composed three years later, but several times it also reminded me of aspects of Mozart. For instance, the oratorio starts with a minor triad, played in arpeggio by hushed winds/brass: was this perhaps a nod to freemasonry (as Mozart’s three opening ‘knocks’ might have been in his Die Zauberflöte Overture)? However, without doubt, Florestan from Fidelio felt ever present in spite of differing musical material.

The soprano part sounds angelic but includes some very difficult coloratura. Elsa Dreisig delivered with perfection, making light of the difficulties in the best sense of the word. Jesus is, of course, the central role. It seems to require Tamino-like purity (with added coloratura) but also some bel canto type of singing for the suffering of Christ. Pavol Breslik​ proved to be the ideal choice for this part,  whether in solo (recitative and aria), duet (with the Seraph) or trio (with all three singers). The part of Peter is restricted to one recitative and one trio; David Soar contributed with dignity.

The chorus is very important, with unusually taxing material. Full credit to whoever coached them (presumably chorus director Simon Halsey) for their transparent musical phrasing and clarity of voice leading. The men were menacing as soldiers looking for and arresting Jesus but deeply moving in their capacity as disciples. The ladies of the choir were slightly short-changed by virtue of Beethoven giving them less material to sing (than to the men) but their quality of singing was excellent. The final full chorus (‘Praise the Lord, you bright angelic choirs’) sent us home with joy and with broad smiles on our faces.

Beethoven’s oratorio was paired at this concert with Berg’s Violin Concerto. Violinist Lisa Batiashvili was as perfect choice for the concerto as the solo singers were for the oratorio.

She played with dedication and passion but with unforced tone, whether in loud or soft passages. More than any other violinist I heard performing this concerto, Batiashvili brought out the humour and charm of the dance elements in the music. When Berg marks, for instance, scherzando or wie ein Walzer (Waltz-like) and so on, Batiashvili’s bow does not stick to the string even in technically difficult passages. Her command of her instrument allowed the polyphonic solo violin passages – bowed but with left hand pizzicato accompaniment – to present full transparency of the polyphony. Berg specifies great many tempo changes; Batiashvili treated all the ebb and flow of the music organically. She used vibrato very little, thus played the Adagio section (that is the Bach choral melody material) with authenticity and utmost beauty. The performance did really feel like as if it was presented in the memory of an angel. Berg wrote his concerto for violinist Louis Krasner – who commissioned it – but dedicated it to The Memory of an Angel (Dem Andenken eines Engels) that is to Manon Gropius, daughter of Alma Mahler, who died at the age of 18.

Players of the orchestra were on top form throughout. Wind and brass particularly excelled in both compositions and I was struck by the five solo double bass notes, responding to the first six notes of a solo violin passage (marked by Berg as delicate) towards the end of the first movement of the concerto, played with sensitivity by principal double bass Colin Paris.

Conductor Sir Simon Rattle took great care of every note and every phrase in both works. Ensemble unity was exemplary in each and every section of the orchestra and chorus, furthermore between soloists and the larger forces. Rhythm – arguably the driving force of music – was clearly articulated throughout.

Beethoven and Berg were served to perfection. One cannot wish for more.

(This concert will be repeated, also at the Barbican and with the same performers, on Thursday 13 February. For more information click here.)

Agnes Kory

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