Just in time for the Festive Season, Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony have the perfect gift for Beethoven enthusiasts – a new recording of the Piano Concerto No 3 – with soloist Emanuel Ax – and the Mass in C major.
This recording – available on November 13 – is the fifth all-Beethoven album by MTT and the Symphony to be released on the Orchestra’s Grammy Award-winning in-house label, SFS Media. “In these performances,” says Music Director Tilson Thomas, “we have been exploring a lyrical, transparent approach to the music. This gives us an opportunity to hear the remarkable qualities of the players of the San Francisco Symphony.”
Emanuel Ax is a longtime friend of the Symphony, and a frequent guest soloist, who performed the complete cycle of Beethoven’s five piano concertos during the Symphony’s 1992 Beethoven Festival – the only occasion on which he has previously played the Third Piano Concerto with the Symphony.
Mr Ax describes the concerto as “on the dramatic and sombre side – at least the first movement – but certainly, as with every Beethoven work, contains every emotional demand. There’s an incredible amount of hope, belief and positive outlook on the world. In spite of his awful life, in many ways, he still somehow wrote, to me, the most positive music ever written.”
According to SF Symphony program annotator James M Keller, “Although Beethoven surely improvised the first-movement cadenza at the premiere, [at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien on April 5, 1803], he did write out a suitable cadenza for this concerto in 1809”. Mr Ax says: “Whenever I play the Beethoven piano concertos I always play Beethoven cadenzas. No-one wrote that music like he did. It’s a sort of extended improvisation.”
Beethoven’s soaring Mass in C major was commissioned by Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, and represents the first time that Beethoven had set the words of the Mass to music. It was first performed at Eisenstadt on September 13, 1807, as part of the celebrations for the name-day of the Prince’s wife, the Princess Maria. Not only was Beethoven late in delivering the work, but Esterházy was apparently disappointed with it as well, a sentiment of which the composer was made aware, so when the work was first published in 1812, he dedicated it to his patron Prince Kinsky instead.
Michael Tilson Thomas describes Beethoven’s Mass in C major as “really delightful”, adding: “I’m always happy to come back to it both as a performer, but also as a listener …. It is a piece that sort of takes possession of the room – in a nice way – and creates an atmosphere that allows your thoughts to move around both inside of the music and perhaps to other places as well.”
He describes the soloists in this performance – soprano Joelle Harvey, mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor, tenor William Burden and bass-baritone Shenyang – as “lyric voices who can float phrases in a way that I’m sure Beethoven must have been imagining when he wrote them”.
Also featured on the recording of the Mass is the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, led by Chorus Director Ragnar Bohlin. Considered one of America’s most distinguished choruses, it has won a total of eight Grammy Awards, including three for Best Choral Performance, one of which was the recording with MTT and the Symphony of Mahler’s Symphony No 8, which won three 2010 Grammys. The Chorus also features on MTT and the Symphony’s recordings of Beethoven’s Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II and his Symphony No 9.
Both the Piano Concerto No 3 and Mass in C major were recorded at Davies Symphony Hall – the Piano Concerto in performances on September 26-28, 2013, and the Mass between January 15-18, 2014. The album, as with all SFS Media recordings, will be available from the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall and online at sfsymphony.org/store, digitally on itunes.com/sfsymphony, and from all major retailers and other digital outlets worldwide. It is already available for pre-order at iTunes.com/SFSymphony.
A promotional video about the recording – with performance footage and interviews with the artists – can be viewed at bit.ly/Beethoven-AxVideo.
San Francisco Symphony
SFS promotional video
James M Keller