The San Francisco Symphony and Chorus perform Beethoven

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COMPOSERS: Ludwig van Beethoven
ALBUM TITLE: Beethoven
WORKS: Piano Concerto No. 3; Mass in C
PERFORMER: Joélle Harvey (soprano), Kelley O’Connor (mezzo-soprano), William Burden (tenor), Shenyang (bass-baritone); Emanuel Ax (piano); San Francisco Symphony & Chorus/ Michael Tilson Thomas


Here we have Beethoven stepping into the shoes of Mozart and Haydn, in two works that have probably never found themselves together on disc before. But the Third Piano Concerto in C minor (premiered in 1803) and Mass in C major (1807) come from a similar period and share the tonal centre of C, which is enough grounds to pair them. So it’s a shame that, while it’s a perfectly good performance, the San Francisco forces’ Mass doesn’t reach the same excellent level throughout that the Concerto does in these live recordings from 2013 and 2014.

Pianist Emanuel Ax, who was also the soloist in the Fourth Concerto on this team’s previous all-Beethoven disc (reviewed May 2011), is on masterful form for the Third Concerto, again directed by Michael Tilson Thomas. The piece is indebted to the Classicism of Mozart, but packed with Beethovenian touches, including the Largo in the unexpectedly far-from-home key of E major. Ax gets the measure of its identity, with playing that’s always lively and intelligent. His fulsome tone matches the rich, robust orchestral sound, and the tempos invariably feel right – the first movement, in particular, bowls along with just the right dash of brio. There’s pure poetry in the Largo, and a plentiful variety of articulation in a characterful Rondo finale.

Beethoven wrote the Mass in C major for the Esterházy Court, formerly Haydn’s employer, and it’s a work that should be heard more often. But while I’m sure this performance would have come across satisfyingly in concert, it is less convincing on disc. There’s a distinguished solo vocal quartet but the San Francisco Symphony Chorus sounds a little ragged, although what they lack in finesse they make up for in energetic spirit. Tilson Thomas paces it well, but there are finer recordings available.


 Rebecca Franks