Part serial, part late-Romantic, Alban Berg’s violin concerto stands at a musical crossroads; the harbinger of 20th century Modernism, it needs to be fully inhabited by orchestra and soloist. Thursday evening’s performance by the London Symphony Orchestra and Lisa Batiashvilli under Sir Simon Rattle was almost there. Certainly, Rattle worked his usual magic, and Batiashvilli gave a consummate performance full of physicality. The violin’s musical ‘conversations’ with sections of the orchestra were deftly handled – the tiptoed hide and seek with the trombones in the first movement and the exquisite interchanges with the cellos and woodwinds in the second, were full of textured nuance. Rattle ensured that the moodiness of the piece prevailed, through an instinctive control of tempo and dynamic, but one felt that, unusually, the LSO weren’t quite always with him in the sudden shifts, and the fractured edges of the work weren’t as smooth as they might have been.
Beethoven’s short 1803 oratorio Christus am Ölberge (Christ on the Mount of Olives) is seldom performed these days, which is a great pity, as it is a work of elegantly crafted emotional impact, and for those of us who find Beethoven’s later choral works overly muscular and lumpen, it offers (along with Fidelio, which followed two years later) proof that he really could write for voices with subtlety and fluidity. As might be expected from a work written just after the second symphony, the influence of Haydn is still strong, but it is nonetheless full of Beethoven’s developing leanings towards Romanticism. That the (nominally) Catholic Beethoven chose a poetic text by Huber rather than pure scripture to describe Christ’s ‘agony in the garden’ is itself the mark of a revolutionary.
The orchestra was joined by the London Symphony Chorus and soloists Elsa Dreisig (soprano), Pavol Breslik (tenor) and David Soar (bass) for a first-rate performance which Rattle, while squeezing intense emotion – as well as brilliantly controlled dynamic contrast – out of all the forces, didn’t allow to spill outside of its period sensibilities.
To cast a tenor as Christus is unusual, but Breslik’s voice was perfect for the part, delivering power (without too much of a Helden edge) and agility for ‘Meine Seele ist erschüttert’, and particularly against the chorus in ‘Hier ist er, der Verbannte’, but softening into expressive lyricism for the recitatives and the duet ‘So ruhe denn mein ganzer Schwere’. The part of the Seraph is alternately comforting and declamatory, and Dreisig managed the difference exactly; her bell-like sweetness blended impeccably with Breslik’s tone for the duet, but she conjured the hard edge of divine pronouncement for ‘Erzittre Erde!’. Sadly, Peter gets little to do until Christ’s arrest towards the end, but Soar brought a weighty darkness to the anger of ‘Nicht ungestraft soll der verwegnen Schar’, and blended perfectly with the two others for the trio ‘In meinen Adern’.
Plaudits must go not only to the orchestra for their well-judged tonal contrasts, but to the LSC who turned in a flawless performance that took in subtle mezza voce work for their first, gentle entry along with some impressive wall of sound moments in later numbers such as ‘Auf, auf! Ergreifet den Verräther’. Particularly to be congratulated are the tenors and basses for their dynamic and textural volte-faces in the choruses requiring them to be both aggressive soldiery and timid disciples.