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Beethoven's Christus am Ölberge was written in 1803 at about the same time as the composer was working on the Eroica Symphony and Third Piano Concerto. He had the work presented at a concert the same year, but had written the work very quickly, so he revised it a few times, as was his practice, before publishing it in 1811. I hadn't heard this piece before, and it appears not to be performed as often as much of Beethoven's other music.
In this, Beethoven's only oratorio, recitatives and arias are interspersed with choruses. He worked with librettist Franz Xaver Huber, who had more experience as an opera librettist, and who deviated from the strict biblical text to present the human side of Jesus. It deals with the contemplation then ultimately the arrest of Jesus.
After a suitably sombre introduction, Christ pleads with God to be merciful and to take the cup of suffering away from him. The fine tenor Jussi Myllys delivers an impassioned account. The Turku Philharmonic Orchestra from Finland is fine indeed, and Leif Segerstam, one of my favourite conductors, delivers a thoughtful and detailed rendition.
Listen — Beethoven: My soul trembles (Christus am Ölberge)
(track 3, 2:10-3:05) © 2019 Naxos Rights (Europe) Ltd :
The Seraph enters accompanied by a thunder roll. She speaks of Jesus lying there, seemingly abandoned by his father and ready to die for the sake of mankind. The accompanying booklet mentions the similarity to the opening entrance and aria for Mozart's Queen of the Night and, indeed, there are similarities which are impossible to ignore. Beethoven's use of instruments like clarinet, bassoon and trombone add to this feeling throughout the oratorio. Fine soprano Hanna-Leena Haapamäki revels in this dramatic role. Her voice is clear and delivers a wide range of expression; at one minute, tender and sweet, and at the next with more than a touch of steel.
Listen — Beethoven: Praise the Redeemer's goodness (Christus am Ölberge)
(track 5, 1:30-2:17) © 2019 Naxos Rights (Europe) Ltd :
What follows is a series of recitatives and choruses during which Christ eventually accepts his fate. Jesus and the Seraph deliver some stunning moments, reinforced by excellent choral and orchestral passages. Again the contrapuntal nature of some of the choruses, sung by Chorus Cathedralis Aboensis, and the orchestration, particularly using clarinet and trombone, remind me a lot of both of Mozart's The Magic Flute and, in places, the Requiem.
Listen — Beethoven: So rest then with all its weight (Christus am Ölberge)
(track 8, 0:42-1:40) © 2019 Naxos Rights (Europe) Ltd :
After Jesus has accepted his fate, events start moving quicky as the soldiers approach and eventually seize him.
Another fine singer, Nicklas Spångberg, is introduced as Peter. He wants to protect Jesus, but Jesus pleads with him not to resist.
Listen — Beethoven: In my veins rage uncontrolled anger and wrath
(Christus am Ölberge)
(track 14, 0:00-0:52) © 2019 Naxos Rights (Europe) Ltd :
The rest of the work consists of the capture of Jesus, his being led away, and praises to God.
The other work on this disc, the Elegiac Song (from about 1814), is a short, tender work by the mature Beethoven, written as a memorial to the wife of a friend and supporter of the composer, who had died a few years earlier. It completes this disc in a very fitting manner.
Listen — Beethoven: Elegischer Gesang
(track 18, 5:48-6:43) © 2019 Naxos Rights (Europe) Ltd :
I recommend this CD to everyone, both for its content and for the excellent performances by all concerned. I hope that it stirs interest in some of Beethoven's less performed and recorded works.
Copyright © 16 July 2019
CD INFORMATION: CHRISTUS AM ÖLBERGE; ELEGISCHER GESANG