United States: Inon Barnatan (piano), Dorothea Röschmann (soprano), May Festival Chorus, Robert Porco, director, Soloists, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra / Louis Langrée (conductor). Cincinnati Music Hall, 03/01/2020 (RDA)

Beethoven: Symphony No. 6, Pastoral
Beethoven: Ah! Perfido
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4
Beethoven: Symphony No. 5
Beethoven: Selections from the Mass in C
Beethoven: Choral Fantasy

On December 22 of 1808, the management of the Theater-an-der-Wien in Vienna condescended after much dilly-dallying to let the 38 year old Beethoven have the theater for one night so that he could have a benefit concert three days before Christmas, just as the Viennese got ready for the biggest holiday of the Austrian calendar.

With Beethoven’s friend and sponsor, Prince Von Lofkowitz in a theater box and a sprinkling of Vienna’s aristocracy in attendance, the concert got off to a rocky start when the already partially deaf Beethoven insisted in conducting the four-hour long marathon.

The maestro had barely had the ink dry on some of the parts he had hastily handed out to the orchestra for a reading at first sight of the premiere of some of his most difficult music.

When things went awry at one point Beethoven stopped the orchestra and asked them to repeat the passage and to get it right this time. The offended musicians, a ragged pick-up group of Vienna’s free-lancers acquiesced, but bad blood permeated the remainder of the night and Beethoven’s days in Vienna.

The soprano who was to sing the concert aria Ah! Perfido cancelled at the last minute, and the young beginner who took her place was a bundle of nerves who sang off-pitch, to add insult to injury.

The audience members who had shelled out two guilders (a workman’s monthly salary) for admission to the four-hour long event sat on uncomfortable seats in the unheated theatre, wearing their coats and scarves.

It was altogether a wretched situation rescued from the brink of disaster by the sheer glory of some of Beethoven’s gems, including both the symphonies nos. 5 and 6, the piano concerto no. 4, excerpts from the C major Mass, and various and sundry bits and pieces from the Beethoven bucket list.

Beethoven took home a good portion of the box office intake and he never looked back

Over two hundred years have gone by, and this year being the one when we celebrate Beethoven’s 250th Happy Birthday, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra has stepped up to honor the Master with a two-part, two-day Beethoven Fest.

I am happy to report that without a hint of any sort of Viennese disaster, the CSO’s event was a smashing success.

With four hours of music to account for, space constraints limit one’s evaluation of this event, but I will say that during both halves: the two and one half hours part one in the afternoon and the one and one half hour part two in the evening the audience never grew weary.

The CSO gave as an opening an exquisite rendition of the Pastoral Symphony, which was followed by Dorothea Röschmann’s memorably extraordinary singing of Beethoven’s concert aria Ah! Perfido, a perfect vehicle for the noted German soprano’s stylishly classical delivery, and her signature dramatic sound, alternating steely invective and melting forgiveness in her plea to one who deserted the female character of Beethoven’s powerful scena.

This long-overdue Cincinnati debut merits a return in an upcoming season.

Pianist Inon Barnatan gave a noble reading of the Piano Concerto no. 4 before the Beethoven-saturated audience and artists took a break. He would come back in the second half to do an imaginative improvisation on themes by Beethoven.

In between the two halves of the concert the ballroom of Music Hall functioned as Beer Garden, where a Viennese buffet was served and bit of Beethoven mixed with bits of Beergarten um-pah-pah permeated the atmosphere.

At the top of the second half Beethoven’s Symphony no. 5 received yet another A+ delivery from the CSO musicians, led by the indefatigable Louis Langrée, providing such a musical climax that one thought it impossible to follow with anything other than good night and safe home.

But the concert continued well into the early evening with the May Festival Chorus clamoring to the Heavens in a shattering delivery of the Sanctus from the Mass in C, with the peerless soprano Janai Brugger, the impressive mezzo-soprano Joyner Horn, the sterling tenor Thomas Cooley, and the very fine bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee up front doing superb solo and ensemble work.

The finale was, as in 1808, Beethoven’s seed for what would eventually become the final movement of his Ninth: the Choral Fantasy, with all the evening soloists and the May Festival Chorus playing up a storm and singing for all their worth the words of the work’s unknown poet: “Welcome the gift of Art, all you blessed souls! When love and strength combine the grace of God is yours to have!”

Rafael de Acha    http://www.Rafael’