Beethoven-To-Be Resonates In Early Cantata From SFSO

Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco continue their Beethoven cyle with the  Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II  and Symphony No. 2.
Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony continue their Beethoven cycle on the SFS Media in-house label.

Beethoven: Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II, Symphony No. 2. Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor), Sally Matthews (soprano), Tamara Mumford (mezzo-soprano), Barry Banks (tenor), Andrew Foster-Williams (baritone), San Francisco Symphony and Chorus. (SFS Media SACD)

By Richard S. Ginell

Since completing their massive Mahler project, Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony have been splitting their recording activities down two parallel paths – American Mavericks and Beethoven. Up until now, the American Mavericks series has been the one to follow, whereas the Beethoven merely added to the voluminous tally sheet of symphonies in circulation. Yet lo, the spirit of enterprise has finally taken hold in the latest entry of the Beethoven series – a rare hearing of an early choral work that was a surprise hit at last May’s Beethoven Project in Davies Hall.  

Beethoven was only 19 when he wrote the Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II, a memorial piece for the late Hapsburg emperor whose brother, Maximillian Franz, happened to be the Elector of Cologne, seated in Bonn, Beethoven’s home town. The composer never heard the piece performed (apparently it wasn’t finished on time for the intended performance, and it remains in obscurity without an official opus number. (It is listed as WoO 87.) Yet Tilson Thomas and company have revealed a sometimes startling piece that offers more of a glimpse into the Beethoven of the future than most of his early works.

The restlessness of the recitative for bass near the beginning, “A monster named Fanaticism,” is the first shock, and the succeeding aria, “Then Joseph came,” is shot through with drama. There are possible signs of a fast-approaching deadline – the piece begins and ends with more-or-less the same lengthy mournful chorus (the first ends in E-flat major, the second in C minor) – but one mostly is struck by the defiance of the young Beethoven as he starts to rip through the boundaries of his classical upbringing.

Tilson Thomas rounds out the disc with the Symphony No. 2, finding a great balance between lean Classicism and direct, hard-hitting, rhythmically resilient Beethoven. This is the most successful performance so far in Tilson Thomas’s second Beethoven symphony cycle; the first, one of the earliest to use a small orchestra, was with the English Chamber Orchestra and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s for CBS in the 1980s.

With almost no current competition outside the big-box-Beethoven trade, Tilson Thomas’s beautifully sung and played performance of the cantata – bolstered by the SFS in-house label’s luxuriously warm, spacious SACD surround sound – has the field pretty much to itself.

MTT and the SFS explored more Beethoven esoterica, the Mass in C and excerpts from the incidental music to King Stephen Jan. 15-18 at Davies Hall in San Francisco. For details about other pending events, click here].

Previously, SFS Media released Beethoven: Symphony No. 9Beethoven: Leonore Overture No. 3 and Symphony No. 7, and Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 and Piano Concerto No. 4 with Emanuel Ax. MTT also led a journey through Beethoven’s music in Keeping Score: Beethoven’s Eroica.

[The music was recorded live in PCM 96 kHz/24-bit audio May 2-3, 2013 at Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco.]

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times and is the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide.