Beethoven's Choral Fantasy Opus 80
It is quite difficult to imagine being in the audience of the Theater an der Wein on 22nd December 1808. On that day a four hour long concert took place during which some of the best loved Classical music of all time was performed for the first time. Beethoven's Fifth and Sixth Symphonies received their first airings, parts of his Mass in C were performed at this momentous event and in addition his Fourth Piano Concerto was given its first performance. Last but not least the less well known Choral Fantasia in C Minor for piano, chorus and orchestra was heard. The whole benefit concert was designed to earn Beethoven (at that time in some financial difficulty) a little money.
According to the Academy of Ancient Music a range of problems occurred during the concert, which were in part due to inadequate rehearsal and in part due to conflict during the performances of the music. However the music itself, some of the greatest ever written, has survived and remains in the repertoire to this day.
Let us look in particular at the Choral Fantasia, which is not quite so well known as the other works due to the forces it requires. A full orchestra, from which at one point the leaders of each string section perform a string quartet; the wind section, brass, timpani; four part SATB choir and SATB soloists as well as a concerto standard pianist all take part, and mustering the quality of artists capable of performing to the standard required for this work is not easy and it can fall flat if one or more of the groups of artists is not quite up to scratch.
All of the musicians are brought to the fore at different points within the work; the piano with its thundering solo introduction and throughout the piece, the brass fanfare to introduce the instrumental variations and later on the march which eventually develops into the four soloists and then the choir and soloists going full blast!
I am sure readers who know their Beethoven will already have spotted that, apart from the piano, a simple melody which develops at the end into SATB soloists plus choir singing fortissimo is remarkably similar to the much later 9th Symphony of 1824. There are obvious parallels with this piece to the 9th Symphony, but it also stands on its own as a delightful pastiche which is great fun and very uplifting and most enjoyable to listen to.
There is a growing number of recordings available, though as the Choral Fantasia lasts for only about 20 minutes it is usually included with several other works on CDs and DVDs. The Barenboim and Klemperer recording with the New Philharmonia Orchestra remains one of the greatest though, if not the greatest - and you can listen to it on Youtube. Be sure to listen to Part 1 and then Part 2. The sound quality is not always good in this download and there is a nasty split in the middle when you have to change videos, but the unblemished and beautifully clean recording is available for sale from Amazon.com as part of The Complete Symphonies and Piano Concertos set of Beethoven symphonies and piano concertos. This collection, which I purchased for my own collection and listen to regularly, also includes the three Leonora overtures plus Coriolanus, the Prometheus overture and the Grosse Fugue, all performed by the top artists of their generation, so it is well worth the money and very good value.
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