On Sunday, director J. Reilly Lewis brought a somewhat offbeat all-Beethoven afternoon to the Washington National Cathedral, featuring the Cathedral Choral Society, vocal soloists and an orchestra. Two of the three works performed appear infrequently in concerts and are rarely combined in a single program. Of the four overtures to Beethoven’s “rescue opera” “Fidelio,” No. 2 is the least heard, and the Mass in C Major is rarely tackled today. Lewis drew a thoughtful version of the overture from the orchestra, highlighting Beethoven’s signature melodies that grow directly out of his chordal language — as in the buoyant trumpet calls heralding themes from the opera and the bluster of the finale. The orchestral solos added to the beauty of the performances.
Lewis then turned to Beethoven’s Fantasia in C Minor for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra, Op. 80, known as the “Choral Fantasy.” Together with the composer’s Missa solemnis, the Fantasia foreshadows the famous theme dominating the last movement of his Ninth Symphony. Pianist Brian Ganz opened the Fantasy with a brilliant display of improvisatory wizardry, eventually engaging the powerful chorus in a tempestuous series of variations on the familiar “Ode to Joy” melody.
As a final work, Lewis resurrected Beethoven’s Mass in C Major, Op. 86, which oddly also portends the Ninth Symphony in its choral treatment and basic harmonic cadences. The mass had its moments: The chorus responded instantly and vigorously to Lewis’s every gesture; and the Benedictus — sung by soloists Laura Choi Stuart, Amanda Fink, Ian McEuen and Kwang-Kyu Lee — was transporting. But, despite Lewis’s valiant showing of his forces, the Mass’s cumbersome essence doesn’t stand up to Beethoven’s best.