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Café Beethoven - Bagatelles by and about Ludwig van Beethoven
Elvira Bill (mezzo-soprano)
Thomas Weissengruber (actor)
Christopher Bruckman (piano)
Chorwerk Ruhr/Florian Helgath
Texts and translations of vocal items included
rec. 2019, Thüringer Landesmusikakademie, Sondershausen & Studio München, Germany

Christopher Bruckmann’s delightfully smooth, unassuming account of the third D major Bagatelle from Beethoven’s Op 119 set opens this interesting disc. The listener must imagine they’ve travelled back to 1820s Vienna and after an enjoyable morning taking in the sights they happen upon an unassuming but welcoming coffee-house, an apt place to seek refreshment. The café pianist is on hand to entertain, while the friendly, gossipy waiter moves around the space with affected urgency, wiping tables, taking and fetching orders and sharing stories with the punters; stories about Beethoven.

Café Beethoven has been designated by its creator, Rudolf Herfurtner as a ‘concert play’; the note reveals that its intention is to suggest “the cosy melancholy of the coffee house”. The put-upon waiter (projected with relaxed, appealing warmth by the actor Thomas Weissengruber) makes for an informed, wry MC; he welcomes us along and shares his anecdotes and perceptions about Beethoven on the even-numbered tracks of this disc. The odd-numbered ones take us on an illuminating tour of Beethoven’s (mostly) lesser-known works for voices with piano including choral songs, weird miniature choral canons (including the extraordinary “Tatata“ für Mälzel), a reduction of the marvellous Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt and the Prisoners’ Chorus from Act 1 of Fidelio. Lusty drinking songs (the Bundeslied, Op 122) rub shoulders with delightful piano miniatures (one of the effervescent Mödlinger Tanze). More inward material (the little-known Elegischer Gesang op. 118) cuts to the core. The project is described as Chorwerk Ruhr’s contribution to the Beethoven 250 celebrations. Their performances are a consistent delight, well-drilled, crisp in diction, conveying joie de vivre, melancholy and aspirational passion by turn. The balance with Bruckman’s sensitive accompaniment has been splendidly realised by the Coviello engineers.

Nor are the items arbitrarily arranged. The waiter’s yarns touch on Beethoven’s personality, his friendships, foibles and his deafness – each are reflected in the choice of repertoire offered. Much is made of the hiatus the composer endured between the onset of his disability and the late masterpieces. The ‘Immortal Beloved’ question is covered by the inclusion of An die ferne Geliebte, given here in a sublime reading of cool purity by the German mezzo-soprano Elvira Bill. The brief cycle is split into three to fit within the conceit of Herfurtner’s concept. Towards the end of the disc there is an acknowledgement of the similarly ill-fated demise of Beethoven’s neighbour Schubert (a stark choir and piano arrangement of Der Wegweiser by Clytus Gottwald illustrates the waiter’s view that both composers “took the wrong turning”). The inclusion of the fugue from Bach’s motet Fürchte dich nicht links to Beethoven’s great forbear and alludes to the spiritual roots of the Missa Solemnis.
The music-making here is terrific from start to finish, and I have a strong suspicion that Rudolf Herfurtner’s linking text is the same. Whilst it is neither unreasonable or unexpected that Weissengruber delivers it in German, I’m afraid my abilities in comprehending the language are extremely limited, although the frustration I experienced because of this had no impact whatsoever on my enjoyment of the music. I only wish that Coviello had found room to include an English translation of the text (or at least provided a link to one on their website) to help those similarly deficient in these terms. Consequently I can only provide an unqualified recommendation for this lovely disc for those listeners who happen to be fluent in German; for the rest of us, could I gently encourage the good people at Coviello Classics to put up an English translation of the text online? I’m sure it would convert an enjoyable listening experience into a truly memorable one.

Richard Hanlon

Contents (even numbered tracks refer to the spoken text, delivered in German)
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
1. Bagatelle op. 119, à l‘Allemande [1:38]
2. ‘Küss die Hand die Damen’ [4:28]
3. Edel sei der Mensch WoO 185 [1:31]
4. ‘Beethoven und Goethe’ [1:30]
5. Mödlinger Tanz WoO 17 [1:13]
6. ‘Und wenn dann alle satt waren…’ [0:12]
7. Bundeslied op. 122 [4:37]
8. ‘In allen guten Stunden…’ [1:52]
9. An die ferne Geliebte op. 98, Strophe 1 [2:44]
10. ‘Übrigens neulich… ‘ [2:43]
11. Elegischer Gesang, op. 118 [5:02]
12. ‘Ist das schön?’ [2:43]
13. Lobkowitz-Kantate WoO 106 [2:06]
14. ‘Apropos Gelegenheitswerke’ [1:16]
15. Kanon: “Tatata“ für Mälzel WoO 162 [1:12]
16. ‘Entschuldigens, aber …’ [1:55]
17. Gefangenenchor from “Fidelio“, Finale- Act 1 [5:10]
18. ‘Die Hoffnung flüstert sanft mir zu … ‘ [01:47]
19. Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828): Der Wegweiser D 911, arr Gottwald [3:43]
20. ‘Ach ja, der Schubert… ‘ [1:18]
21. Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt op. 112 [6:42]
22. ‘Haben Sie gewusst… ‘ [1:18]
23. Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Fürchte dich nicht BWV 228 (Fugue) [2:04]
24. ‘Fürchte dich nicht, du bist mein’ [1:49]
25. An die ferne Geliebte op. 98, Strophe 2-4 [4:09]
26. ‘Den Liederkreis hat der Beethoven…’ [2:01]
27. An die ferne Geliebte op. 98, Strophe 5-6 [6:33]

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