Thursday 21 February 2019

The full Egmont: Beethoven's incidental music linked by extracts of Goethe's play

BeethovenL Egmont - Beethoven Orchester Bonn - MDG
Beethoven Incidental music to Egmont; Olga Bezsmertna, Matthias Brandt, Beethoven Orchestra Bonn, Dirk Kaftan; MDG  
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 17 February 2019 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
Beethoven's complete incidental music to Goethe's Egmont with extracts from the play

Beethoven's music for Goethe's play Egmont is best known for the overture which has rightly developed an independent life of its own. On this disc on the Musikproduktion Dabringhaus und Grimm (MDG) label, the Beethoven Orchester Bonn and conductor Dirk Kaftan give us the complete incidental music with nine numbers in addition to the overture. The orchestra is joined by soprano Olga Bezsmertna, and actor Matthias Brandt gives a spoken narration based on Goethe's play.

Beethoven wrote the music in 1809 and it premiered in 1810 with Goethe highly praising it. Coming two years after Beethoven completed his Symphony No. 5 the subject of the play, the heroic sacrifice of a man condemned to death, chimed in with Beethoven's own political concerns at the time. The music is not extensive, of the disc's 45 minutes duration some ten minutes is taken up with Matthias Brandt's narration. Simply, Goethe's tragedy about the Protestant revolt in 16th century Netherlands, very much a play of ideas, does not have the need for extensive musical contributions. The biggest is the Victory Symphony which plays at the end, counterpointing Egmont's execution with an image of the Netherlands' ultimate freedom. Beethoven pre-figures this by using the music from the Victory Symphony at the end of the overture, complete with the important piccolo part associated with Egmont's sweetheart Klärchen.

 Klärchen gets two songs, but as a commoner these are more folk-like in style though still complex, and there is a melodrama for the crucial climax of the play which makes you wish Beethoven had had the opportunity to write more developed incidental music. The rest of the music consists of entractes, designed to link the acts and keep the audience entertained in the pauses. Here Beethoven writes some striking music which brings out the themes of the opera. It is fascinating music, but it does not have quite the sense of individual characteristic movements which makes Mendelssohn's incidental music for A Midsummer Night's Dream work as a suite. So sensibly, the disc includes linking narratives extracted from Goethe's play by Tillman Bottcher and Matthias Brandt, and spoken by Brandt.

Unfortunately for non-German speakers, the disc gives neither translation nor summary of the spoken text. And I have to confess that I found Matthias Brandt's delivery a little too quietly intimate, more radio drama than theatrical presentation. I would have preferred something which evoked the stage more.

The performance from Dirk Kaftan and the Beethoven Orchestra of Bonn gives much to enjoy. Though playing on modern instruments, the orchestra gives a tight and crisp performance, with a very lithe focused sound which I enjoyed immensely. Dirk Kaftan's judging of the controlled excitement of the Victory Symphony is excellent, with it never erupting into overblown romanticism, and the instrumental balance is good.

This disc is a little short, and I wished that the orchestra could have seen their way to giving us a couple of Beethoven's other overtures. If you have wondered about Beethoven's incidental music and the play which surrounds it, then this is for you.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) - Incidental music to Goethe's Egmont.
Olga Bezsmertna (soprano)
Beethoven Orchestra Bonn
Dirk Kaftan (conductor)
Matthias Brandt (actor)
MDG 937 2111-6 1CD [45.57]

Available from Amazon.

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