Beethoven’s only oratorio, Christ on the Mount of Olives (Christus Am Ölberge) hails from 1803 and delves into the mind of Jesus as he contemplates and ultimately accepts his passion. Such introspective melancholy finds resonance in Beethoven’s personal life, a year after poignantly revealing his struggle with deafness in the now famous Heiligenstadt Testament. The work also paved the way towards the dramatic vocal writing in Fidelio.
After receiving a lukewarm reception, the oratorio fell into obscurity, apart from the final, so-called ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ – the word ‘Hallelujah’ only appearing in the English translation – which became a favourite with Anglophone choirs in the 19th century. The questionable literary merits of the original German libretto by Franz Xaver Huber, which Beethoven disliked, (and which was subsequently reworked) did the work no favours.
Reversing the tradition of chant and polyphonic settings of the passion, Beethoven gave the role of Jesus to a tenor and that of Peter to a bass. The full chorus only sings twice, while a male chorus of soldiers and disciples appear at certain points. There are some charming arias, but the general impression is that the work’s musical parts do not add up to more than the sum of its whole.
Even so, the work has been recorded by some celebrated tenors, including Australian, Steve Davislim. Nicolai Gedda’s 1970 recording arguably remains the most polished and affecting of those in the catalogue. Earlier this year in honour of the Beethoven anniversary, the LSO gave two performances to which Rattle brought energy and clarity, making light of the stresses and strains that are inevitably captured in a live recording.
Rattle’s trio of relatively young soloists does well. Slovak tenor Pavol Breslik (no stranger to Australian audiences) brings breadth of tone and depth of feeling to Jesus’ inner turmoil, only occasionally revealing some stress in his upper range. English bass David Soar portrays hot-headed Saint Peter forcefully but clearly, while French-Danish soprano Elsa Dreisig is suitably angelic. Rattle brings forth wonderfully evocative instrumental colours from the LSO, especially in the brass and wind departments, while veteran chorus director Simon Halsey elicits spirited but disciplined singing from the chorus.
If you’re seeking a fine, modern recording of this Beethoven curiosity, look no further.
Work: Christus Am Ölberge
Performers: London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Simon Rattle
Label: LSO Live LSO0862