Imagine yourself in an unheated hall at this exact time of year, lighted only by candles, attending a five-hour concert exclusively of a young, talented upstart’s recent works — a Christmas concert. The music’s composer was conducting. Mistakes were made often and badly enough to stop the music more than once. The crowd behaved raucously (it helped keep them warm) and left unsatisfied.
Exactly 200 years later, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra conductor laureate Raymond Leppard duplicated less than half of that concert of works by one Ludwig van Beethoven. The Scottish Rite Ballroom was warm, well-lit and filled with satisfied music lovers. Ferns, topped with poinsettias, draped the portable stage on its three sides facing the audience ... and Beethoven’s music always continued when it was supposed to. Once again, IU’s Apollo’s Voice Choir under Jan Harrington joined ISO’s Classical Christmas — this one its 10th anniversary.
Leppard began with selections from Beethoven’s “warm-up” Mass in C, Op. 86: the “Kyrie,” the “Benedictus” and the “Agnus Dei.” I say warm-up because some 15 years later he produced what he felt to be his greatest work: the Missa Solemnis in D, Op. 123, which exceeds the C Major in so many ways that one hopes our orchestra and its music director Mario Venzago will see fit to prepare it someday — for only its second performance in ISO history. Having said that, Op. 86 came across quite effectively, perhaps more so as a chamber mass for smaller forces. Four solo singers melded splendidly with Apollo’s Voice’s 36 vocalists. Plus the chamber-sized instrumentation helped bring out the subdued drama, especially at the “Agnus Dei’s” opening.
Young German guest pianist Marcus Groh then joined the non-singing forces for the Piano Concerto No. 4 in G, Op. 58, Beethoven’s crowning jewel among his concerted works. Once again we heard Leppard’s unmistakably precise phrase articulation make the work come alive, even at an almost dissected tempo in the opening movement. Groh’s reputed brilliance as a Liszt interpreter generally worked well in Op. 58, though many of his soft passages were too soft to be heard. Whereas his rapid, loud passages emerged as brilliant and beautifully controlled.
Following the break, soprano Carolina Castells joined the orchestra for Beethoven’s best known Italian scene and aria, “Ah, perfido!” Op. 65. Very Mozartean in its Italianate texture, the piece is quite demanding for a singer, as befits Beethoven’s vocal-composer reputation. Castells showed her best work in her sustained lower register passages, where she gave us a beautifully centered, well controlled delivery. However, her loud, higher virtuosic passages showed excessive wavering with an occasional off-centered pitch, a characteristic heard more often than one would prefer. She did project well in the ballroom’s heavily damped acoustics.
Leppard closed with a “warm-up” for Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony’s “Ode to Joy” chorale: his earlier “Choral Fantasy” in C Minor for Piano, Orchestra and Chorus, Op. 80. In this case, no “hope” is required for performing the far superior Ninth, as it is as much a concert warhorse as anything you could name. This 20-minute curiosity begins with a solo piano, followed by piano and orchestra, then — at the end — the chorus chimes in. Its chorale tune is nowhere near as famous as the Ninth’s. Groh once again displayed his impressive technique, even as Leppard and Harrington’s forces performed the “Choral Fantasy” splendidly.