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CD Review

Ludwig van Beethoven

  • Symphony #3 "Eroica" in E Flat Major, Op. 55
  • "Grosse Fuge" Op. 133
Philharmonia Orchestra/Otto Klemperer
EMI 66793
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The "Eroica". When I hear this music I am aware just how revolutionary it was for its time. Stravinsky's "Rite" was a comparable statement in this century. To their respective eras they were singing "The Times They Are A Changing". How is that for jarring juxtapositions?

This must be my favorite symphony. I have over a dozen recordings, more than any other piece of music I own. The first two movements are the most intense, inspirational gauntlets I know. The only recording of this piece that I do not like is Toscanini's.* I have written elsewhere that Beethoven stands astride the Classical and Romantic eras of music. To a certain extent interpretations of his music can be heard as leaning towards one side or the other. In the best of interpretations there is a sense in which this tendency is one of ends of a spectrum rather than different camps. Also, as in any music, the interpretation must have a Life Force, a pulse, an inevitability. Recordings I like less-well seem too predictable. There is a difference between the inevitable and the predictable.

Kletzki is, to my ears, more Classical. His 19678 Czech Philharmonic recording opens with razor sharp attacks. The first two movements are the fastest in my collection: 14:14 and 15:18. The Czech Philharmonic plays like one of the greatest orchestras in the world… and it is. Throughout the Classical emphasis is carried along with the Life Pulse. It is kind of like Toscanini with soul.*

Klemperer's lean is more Romantic. His pacing, like Barbirolli's**, [Dutton 1008] is more spacious [16:41 and 16:54 for the first two movements]. Still, there is a tension and the slower tempi allow for a bit of lingering over lovely details. I didn't hear this release on LP but had the earlier CD issue. I gave that one away because I didn't like the sound. The sound is significantly better, to my recollection, in this ART remastering.

Perhaps only Pierre Monteux, with the Concertgebouw [Philips 420853, nla] seems to have his feet planted equally in both musical eras. Every time I listen to his recording I am aware that this is the conductor who introduced Stravkinsky's "Rite" to the world. Listen to the swirling of the violins towards the close of the first movement! There is an added twist not heard anywhere else.

To put another perspective on matters, here are the other recordings I particularly like in addition to those already mentioned. I like all of the Furtwängler's, Bruno Walter, Tennstedt, Bernstein's VPO recording and Giulini with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. I have a few others in my collection and I would love to get a copy of the Kubelík with the VPO on Bellart. (Anyone out there listening???)

Klemperer's recording is among the best ever. The 1978 issue of the Penguin Guide to Compact Discs listed it as a first choice. I can concur with that assessment. It has a power, a monumental aspect and an organic whole. Everything is right. The sound, as mentioned earlier, is superb. There is air around the music and a depth of perspective. I highly recommend it to anyone.

As for the Grosse Fugue… the more I hear this transcription the more I am convinced it shouldn't be. Oh, well.

Whenever I listen to a great performance of the "Eroica" I recall H.L. Mencken's essays on the music. If you haven't read them, I strongly recommend it. Reading them you realize that if he could have gone back in history, Mencken would have loved to be at the world première of the "Eroica". I agree.

* Normally I do not write a review if I do not like a recording. I make an exception here. I received Toscanini's set of the Beethoven Symphonies from RCA. The jewel cases laud him as the greatest conductor of the century. I disagree. His metronome steeplechase (Gary Graffman's phrase) lacks soul. It is damn near a parody of the music. I know this sounds harsh, but that is how I hear his Beethoven. I offered the set to my dad, who I knew had heard the music on the radio. His comment was to the effect, 'When I was younger Toscanini was all you could hear. I have since found that I like other conductors much more.'

** If you want slow, Barbirolli's funeral movement is over 18 minutes!! Still, it has the tension, the Life Pulse of a great performance.

Copyright © 1999, Robert Stumpf II