Early Beethoven cantatas hint at greatness

The Emporer is dead, long live the Emporer.

In 1790 a nineteen-year-old Ludwig van Beethoven was commissioned to write two cantatas. The first was an elegy for Emperor Joseph II. The second for Leopold II, who inherited the throne. Maestro Leif Segerstam presents both works. It continues Naxos’s series of Beethoven choral works.

Apparently, the works were never performed, which is a shame. They follow the patterns laid out for such works. Both works follow traditional forms. Joseph II’s cantata opens and closes with a chorus, with soprano and bass recitatives and arias filling ou the middle.

Leopold II’s cantata is a celebratory work that picks up steam as it goes. It begins with a soprano solo, then a tenor and bass add their voices. A trio of the three voices then leads to a rousing concluding chorus.

These are interesting works. Though they follow traditional forms, to me they sound heavier than similar works by Mozart or Haydn. Harmonies seem thick and there’s a sense of pent-up power in the orchestra.

The final chorus of Leopold II’s cantata hints at greatness to come (especially the Ninth Symphony). It features hard-hitting homophony, then breaks into a fugue of satisfying complexity.

Many parts of these cantatas suggested to me that Beethoven looked to Bach for inspiration. Joseph II’s cantata, especially at times, sounded like an updated arrangement of Bach rather than original material.

In my opinion, Leif Segerstam and the Turku Philharmonic Orchestra always make a great combination. This recording is no exception. This is not Beethoven’s greatest music, but the musicians are as invested in it as if it were. That’s also true of the soloists and the Chorus Cathedralis Aboensis.

This recording shows a somewhat unusual side of Beethoven — and provides an understanding of just how deep his talent ran.

Ludwig van Beethoven: Two Cantatas
Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II WoO 87
Cantata on the Accession of Leopold II WoO 88
Reetta Haavisto, Johanna Lehesvuori, soprano;  Tuomas Katajala, tenor;  Juha Kotilainen, Niklas Spångberg, bass
Chorus Cathedralis Aboenis; Key Ensemble; Turku Philharmonic Orchestra; Leif Segerstam, conductor
Naxos 8.574077

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