Jakob Alt’s painting of the Theater an der Wien, where Beethoven presented his “musical Akademie” (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)
Last night in Herbst Theatre the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (PBO) & Chorale concluded its 37th season with the traditional seasonal offering of a program of nineteenth-century music. The program, which was conducted by Waverley Fund Music Director Nicholas McGegan, was entitled Beethoven Unleashed; and both of the Ludwig van Beethoven selections, first and last on the program, featured the Philharmonia Chorale, prepared by Director Bruce Lamott, and a wealth of vocal soloists. Those vocalists were sopranos Chantal Santon-Jeffery and Helene Zindarsian, contralto Avery Amereau, tenors Thomas Cooley and David Kurtenbach, and baritone Hadleigh Adams.
For the “grand finale” of the evening (and, thus, of the season), all of those vocal resources were joined by pianist Eric Zivian on fortepiano for a performance of Beethoven’s Opus 80 “Choral Fantasy.” This piece was actually written to be such a grand finale, the occasion being the famous (notorious?) “musical Akademie” concert that Beethoven organized and presented at the Theater an der Wien on December 22, 1808. Beethoven presented about four hours worth of his own music, both directing and performing at the keyboard. Opus 80 was designed to include all those who had participated in any of the preceding offerings on the program.
That performance of Opus 80 most likely began with Beethoven improvising at the keyboard, eventually homing in on a theme that would be given strophic treatment for the remainder of the composition. (Beethoven never bothered to document his improvisation. When he prepared the piece for publication by Breitkopf & Härtel in 1811, he wrote a new introduction, which may or may not have incorporated any memories of what he played in 1808.) The strophes first play the theme in a variety of instrumental settings, then the vocal soloists take their turn in several different combinations. Finally, the full chorus joins in on the fun, bringing the whole affair to a rousing conclusion.
Roughly 24 hours ago I was writing about how hard it was to suppress a fit of the giggles while listening to Franz Liszt’s second piano concerto in A major. Beethoven’s Opus 80 has a similar effect. However, if the reaction to Liszt is basically a Whiskey Tango Foxtrot approach to his unabashed excesses, the giggles for Beethoven are those of the unrestrained joy that comes when this piece is performed well. The Opus 125 (“Choral”) symphony may have drawn upon Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” poem; but in Opus 80 Beethoven takes the somewhat more mundane verses of Christopher Kuffner and endows them with a dazzling spectacle that easily elicits sheer delight from all but the most inveterate sourpuss listeners. McGegan and all the resources he led could not have picked a more delightful way to wrap up the season.
Similar resources were summoned to open the program with Beethoven’s Opus 86 Mass setting in C major (excerpts from which were part of the Akademie program). This may well have been written for a church service, in which the sections of the Mass are distributed across the other parts of the ritual. This would explain why Beethoven could shift from C major to A major between the Gloria and Credo sections. His instrumentation included natural horns, and they would have needed time to change their piping and warm up their altered instruments.
Nevertheless, the score itself emerges as a somewhat routine approach that may have been written “on spec.” One could definitely appreciate the rich qualities of wind and brass sounds that colored the overall texture, qualities that are much more evident through the distinct individualities of historical instruments. Just as impressive were the vocal contributions of Santon-Jeffrey, Amereau, Cooley, and Adams, as well as the full Philharmonia Chorale. Nevertheless, for all of the attentiveness of the players, the music never quite rose to the level of the sort of visceral response evoked by Opus 80.
The two Beethoven selections were separated by Luigi Cherubini’s motet “Chant sur la mort de Joseph Haydn” (song on the death of Joseph Haydn), scored for soprano, two tenors, and orchestra. The piece is somewhat odd, particularly since Cherubini wrote it in response to a report of Haydn’s death that turned out to be false (fake news?). The structure consists of a recitative for each soloist followed by a vocal trio.
Cherubini is probably given less attention than he deserves. He was one of the founders of the Conservatoire de Paris, and Beethoven was an enthusiastic admirer of his work. He received far more attention when I was younger, perhaps because his Médée (Medea) opera was part of the repertoire of Maria Callas. Nevertheless, when one listens to his motet, it is not hard to see the sources of Beethoven’s appreciation. Ultimately, the performance revealed excellent judgement from McGegan on how to balance the two Beethoven offerings.