Friday 10 July 2020

Incidental music to The Ruins of Athens: prime Beethoven linked to a forgetten play

Beethoven Die Ruinen von Athen; Czech Philharmonic Choir of Brno, Cappella Aquileia, Marcus Bosch; cpo
Beethoven Die Ruinen von Athen; Czech Philharmonic Choir of Brno, Cappella Aquileia, Marcus Bosch; cpo

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 10 July 2020 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
Prime Beethoven yet a rarity, the complete incidental music to The Ruins of Athens

Beethoven wrote the incidental music for August von Kotzebue's play The Ruins of Athens (Die Ruinen von Athen) in 1811, a period when he was working on his Symphony No. 7, Archduke Trio and String Quartet No. 11 'Serioso' Opus 95. So it is prime-period Beethoven, but the music, apart from the overture and a march, is rarely performed as without the play the result is a somewhat disparate series of movements.

For this new recording of Beethoven's complete incidental music to The Ruins of Athens on the cpo label, Marcus Bosch conducts the Czech Philharmonic Choir of Brno and Cappella Aquileia, with soloists Valda Wilson, Simon Bailey and Sidonie von Korsigk; and Kotzebue's play has been replaced by a new text from Kai Wessler. The disc also includes Beethoven's choral cantata Calm sea and prosperous voyage and the Opferlied, Op 121b.

Beethoven wrote an overture and ten items for Kotzebue's play, ranging from the well known Turkish March to choruses, a duet and an aria. The problem for any performers is how to link these together without the play, and in the case of Kotzebue's The Ruins of Athens, the very specificity of the piece rather prevents us from reviving it in the form that Beethoven knew it.

August von Kotzebue wrote The Ruins of Athens for the grand opening of the newly-built theatre in Pest, Hungary (in what is now Budapest). Emperor Franz had commissioned the theatre in 1808, to alleviate nationalist feelings in Hungary and to celebrate the loyalty of Hungary to the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. The opening was planned for the name day of the Emperor (who as Emperor Franz II was the last Holy Roman Emperor, before dissolving the Empire and creating the Austro-Hungarian Empire as Emperor Franz I), but delays pushed the date back to 1812. Kotzebue's play is a funny mix of classical antiquity, Hungarian national pride and contemporary politics, as the goddess Athena awakens, find Athens in ruins and overrun by the Turks and seeks a new home in Hungary, which historically was a bastion against the Turks.

In fact, Beethoven wrote incidental music to two of August von Kotzebue's plays in 1811, both commissioned for the opening of the theatre in Pest, King Stephen (about the founder of the Kingdom of Hungary), and The Ruins of Athens. Kotzebue was one of the most popular German writers of the day, and Beethoven approached him with the idea of writing an opera on the subject of Attila, though nothing came of this.
Kotzebue's play The Ruins of Athens is not a subject that lends itself to revival, and though the play was revived in Vienna in 1822 (in revised form), it has not held its place in the repertoire and most of Beethoven's incidental music has largely disappeared. For this new version, Kai Wessel has taken elements of Kotzebue's play and combined it with extracts from Schiller's poem The Beginning of a New Century, keeping the character of Athena awakening, making it a monologue.

So we have Wessel's poetic German text spoken by Sidonie von Krosigk, with vocal soloists Valda Wilson (as a Greek woman), and Simon Bailey (as a Greek man and the High Priest), the Czech Philharmonic Choir of Brno and Cappella Aquileia, conducted by Marcus Bosch. Bosch is the artistic director of the Heidenheim Opera Festival where Cappella Aquileia is the resident orchestra. It is a chamber orchestra and the lithe account of the music is very much in the style of a small-scale theatre orchestra rather than a luxuriantly symphonic version. The chorus is similarly lithe, with a very present sound and the bulk of the music goes to chorus and orchestra, though none of the movements is particularly long. The Turkish elements of the plot means that we have a lively chorus of dervishes and the characterful Turkish March, and there are two passages of melodrama. Simon Bailey contributes a dignified aria as the High Priest, and he joins Valda Wilson for a melifluous duet.

There is some fine Beethoven here and whilst the work must remain a curiosity, this new version gives us a chance to hear it in a coherent version which does justice to the interaction of text and music.

Also, on the disc is Beethoven's choral cantata Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage setting two poems by Goethe. Beethoven himself conducted the premiere of the work in 1815. (The same poems would inspire Mendelssohn's concert overture from 1828). I enjoyed the work immensely, it comes somewhat in the form of an overture with voices, slow introduction leading to the lively second part.

The final work on the disc is Opferlied (Song of Sacrifice) setting a poem by Friedrich von Matthisen which he had first considered in the 1790s! (Matthison's poetry formed the text of Beethoven's song Adelaide).  In 1798 he produced a setting of the poem Song of Sacrifice for voice and piano, then produced a new version in 1822 for solo voices, chorus and orchestra, and revised this in 1826. It is this last version that is performed on the disc. Valda Wilson is the dignified soloist in the verses, each of which Beethoven surrounds with some lovely solo instrumental writing, and each time answered by the chorus.

This is an enjoyable disc, Marcus Bosch and his forces make these lesser-known pieces work thanks to engaging and engaged performances and a willingness to take the music on its own terms. Beethoven's incidental music was never going to be a dramatic revelation, but in this intelligent new version the result hangs together nicely and enables us to shed light on lesser-known aspects of the mature Beethoven.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) - Die Ruinen von Athen Op. 113 (1812) [41.30]
Ludwig van Beethoven - Meeresstille und gluckliche Fahrt op.112 (1828) [6:43]
Ludwig van Beethoven - Opferlied op. 121b (1826) [5:04)
Valda Wilson (soprano)
Simon Bailey (bass)
Sidonie von Krosigk (actor)
Czech Philharmonic Choir Brno
Cappella Aquileia
Marcus Bosch (conductor)
Recorded 8 & 9 July 2018, Festspielhaus Congress Centrum, Heidenheim
CPO 777 634-2 1CD [53.28]

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