After consecutive cycles of all of Beethoven's string quartets, followed by all of his symphonies, where does one go? For me, it was back to Carnegie Hall last Thursday to hear the Orchestra of St. Luke's perform an adventurous program of Beethoven's choral and orchestral music, part of Carnegie's ongoing Beethoven 250th birthday celebration. Led by their Principal Conductor Bernard Labadie, many of these works are rarely heard in concert, for logistical and, well...other reasons. But, they are an essential part of Beethoven's orchestral output, presaging many of his better known masterpieces.
The Leonore Overture No. 2 (1805) was Beethoven's first crack at an overture for his sole opera, Fidelio. Compared to the more famous Leonore No.3 - or No.1, which the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique performed on Feb. 20 - this one felt disjointed, taking a bit long to build up to the main theme. It was more of a tone poem than a tight introduction. Still, there were some neat effects, like placing trumpeter Carl Albach in the balcony.
The chamber choir La Chapelle de Québec - also directed by Labadie - joined the OSL for Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage (1815), a cantata that was completely unknown to me. Completed about a year after the final version of Fidelio, it colorfully sets a pair of nautical poems by Goethe. The first, "Calm Sea", is soothing, almost Brahms-like as the sailors are adrift at sea. Then, things pick up and we segue into "Prosperous Voyage": a swashbuckling shanty with a real Yo-Ho-HO! feel to it. You could almost feel the wind in your hair as Beethoven cheerfully carries us across the water, perched high up on the mast.
The Choral Fantasy (1808) is one of Beethoven's real oddball creations. Thrown together at the last minute for the same epic concert that featured the premieres of the 5th and 6th symphonies, the 4th piano concerto, and the Mass in C, it's like a piano concerto on steroids. After 26 bars of solo piano (played with finesse and a healthy dose of fun by Jeremy Denk), the orchestra comes in to alternate with the piano a set of variations on the main theme. Finally, a chorus and six soloists join in to sing a somewhat silly, sentimental poem that was actually written to fit Beethoven's music. Still, the overall effect was overwhelming: this is Beethoven at his most manic and joyous, and an obvious precursor to the epic 9th symphony, still another 16 years off.
The second half of the concert was devoted to the Mass in C (1807), written for the same noble family that Haydn once worked for and sounding as if it was cut from much the same cloth. The "Kyrie" was soothing and calm, the "Gloria" and "Credo" bold and exciting. The women of La Chapelle de Québec were especially impressive, penetrating through the orchestra and soloists (soprano Karina Gauvin, mezzo Kelley O'Connor, tenor Andrew Haji, bass Mathew Brook).
This was a strong, wonderfully executed performance, and while the Mass in C not the most exciting bit of Beethoven's output, it offers valuable insight into how he came up with his ultimate masterpiece, the groundbreaking Missa Solemnis (1823) - which can be heard at Carnegie on April 4 with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. I'll see you there.
More pictures here.