About two and one-half weeks ago SFS Media released the latest album of performances by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) under the baton of Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) based on recordings made during concert performances in Davies Symphony Hall. Both selections on the album are by Ludwig van Beethoven. The more familiar is the Opus 37 (third) piano concerto in C minor, featuring Emanuel Ax as soloist. This is coupled with the far less familiar Opus 86 setting of the Mass text in C major. This latter performance includes the SFS Chorus (Ragnar Bohlin, Director) along with four vocal soloists, soprano Joélle Harvey, mezzo Kelley O’Connor, tenor William Burden, and bass-baritone Shenyang.
The concerto is a relatively early composition, written between 1800 and 1801. It is also the only concerto written in a minor key, although C minor was definitely a key favored by Beethoven for expressivity. Fortunately, Ax has enough confidence in his own expressiveness to give in to the temptation of overloading the dramatism. Instead, he knows how to play up the moments of playfulness and lyricism that balance the more impassioned elements and keep the overall rhetoric from descending into rant. One result is that he can present Beethoven’s own cadenza for the first movement as a broad spectrum of emotional dispositions. This was particularly evident during his concert performance in September of 2013; and, if it is not quite as evident on this recording, it is worth remembering that body language often contributes as much as technical expertise during the immediacy of performance. Nevertheless, there is much to enjoy in how Ax can breathe life into a concerto that is played with great frequency, as well as the intimate partnership he established with MTT in this particular interpretation of that concerto.
Opus 86, on the other hand, is less convincing. In was written in 1807 on a commission from Nikolaus II, Prince Esterházy, best known as the man that brought Joseph Haydn back to Schloss Esterházy in Eisenstadt, after his father, Prince Anton Esterházy, had disbanded the music ensemble that Haydn had created for Anton’s own father, Nikolaus I. By the time Haydn’s accepted that invitation, he had become a prosperous “free agent;” but the commitment was an easy one, amounting to composing one Mass setting every year. Nikolaus II thus approached Beethoven in the interest of continuing this tradition. (Haydn had withdrawn from the commitment in 1802 due to failing health.)
It is rather interesting to look at the letter to Nikolaus II that accompanied the manuscript for Opus 86. Beethoven’s relationship with Haydn as a teacher was that of a rambunctious pupil determined not only to learn his master’s tricks but also to outdo them. This can be seen easily in his early instrumental music, particularly the three Opus 2 piano sonatas (which he dedicated to Haydn, probably as a way of not only making his point but also rubbing in it). In that respect the letter to Nikolaus II is strikingly deferential to Haydn. Haydn’s ill health may have been a factor; but is also likely that Beethoven had examined enough of Haydn’s scores to recognize that, in the domain of choral music, he was not yet equipped to outdo his former master. One might even take the sophisticated fugal technique of the 1823 Mass setting (the Missa Solemnis in D major) as a means of honoring that master’s skills, even if almost fifteen years had elapsed since that master’s death.
The result on this recording is thus a honorable account of music by a composer who knew his own limitations. Neither MTT nor any of his performers has tried to be dismissive of this music. On the other hand MTT seems inclined to “play it as it lays,” giving a clear account of everything that Beethoven wrote without trying to inflate it into something of greater proportions. The result is an album that provides a balanced portrait of Beethoven-the-working-musician during the first decade of the nineteenth century, complementing the intensity of his only minor-key concerto with the more dutiful assignment of “covering” for his former master.