BEETHOVEN:  Christ on the Mount of Olives, Op. 85
Simone Kermes, soprano (Seraph); Steve Davislim, tenor (Jesus); Eike Wilm Schulte, bass (Peter); Chorus Musicus; Das Neue Orchester/Christoph Spering, cond.

OPUS 111 OPS 30-281 (F) (DDD) TT:  49:00 

(THIS CD HAS BEEN DISCONTINUED)

Despite decent recorded representation, this oratorio remains relatively unfamiliar in the concert hall, perhaps because its religious subject sits oddly on our image of the agnostic Beethoven.  But, as the two great Masses should indicate, the composer was no stranger to religious themes, and his long-breathed, dignified, "Classical" strain of lyricism aptly evokes an appropriately reverent spirit.

The present performance lacks "star" charisma, but certainly does all the right things.  Christoph Spering captures the gravity of the score's more solemn moments and invests the more vigorous passages with plenty of energy.  The extended orchestral introduction unfolds spaciously, setting the quiet but none the less anticipatory mood.  The soaring drive of the tenor aria prefigures Fidelio's heroic moments.  The fugue that begins the concluding chorus of angels is light and clear, the motif clearly articulated.

The playing of the chamber-scaled "period" orchestra is accomplished, with the period brass bringing particular advantages -- there's a nice bite to the horn fanfares of the introduction, while the crisp brass punctuations later in the piece don't weigh things down.  But the strings, despite exemplary intonation, sound relatively insubstantial; modern strings, and more of them, would provide a more solid midrange presence, as well as the vibrant warmth to flesh out the introspective moments.

The soloists are good but not world-beating.  Steve Davishlim has a pleasing devotional manner and a rather stiff head voice.  Simone Kermes's soprano is fresher, with a nice fluency in the fioriture. Eike Wilm Schulte is suitably authoritative in Peter's few lines.  The well-blended, unified chorus sounds a bit hollow to begin with, but their focus improves as the piece proceeds.

Recording is clear and has good depth, though the slightly blatty edge on the trumpets doesn't sound like the players' fault.

S.F.V. (Dec. 2000)