Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 “Eroica” (SACD review)

Also, 12 Contredanses and the Finale from The Creatures of Prometheus. Andrew Manze, Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra. Harmonia Mundi HMU 807470.

Beethoven wrote his Symphony
No. 3
“Eroica,” Op. 55, in 1804 and premiered it in 1805, marking something
of a new beginning in the development of symphonic structure and prompting
endless discussions among critics about what it all means. Violinist and
conductor Andrew Manze tells us what it means: It means riveting music, even if
his interpretation is more elegant than it is scintillating.

Manze, who specializes in repertoire from the late
seventeenth to early nineteenth centuries, was the Music Director of the Academy
of Ancient Music from 1996 to 2003 and then the Artistic Director of the
English Concert, both period-instrument groups. Since 2006 he has been the
Principal Conductor of Sweden’s Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra, who play on
modern instruments. It makes no difference; Manze brings with him the
adventurous sensibilities of a period-instrument conductor, making his
performance of the Third Symphony
something more than ordinary.

Accordingly, Manze takes the first moments of the
symphony’s opening Allegro con brio
in strong, broad strokes, followed by a highly charged, exceptionally heroic
follow-through. For the first few minutes, the conductor maintains a constant
forward momentum as though Napoleon himself were driving straight through
Europe hell-bent on world conquest. These initial statements characterize a
Beethoven with plenty of snap, the intensity always under Manze’s utmost
control. However, the conductor is not excessively stringent about his tempos,
varying them considerably over the course of the movement, becoming quite
gentle at times and then almost violent. The orchestra is relatively small at
about fifty-nine players, and they offer up a lean, clean, intimate-sounding Third, even though with the speed
changes Manze takes, the performance may not appeal to all tastes.

With the Funeral
, Manze is more consistent with his pacing, not that that’s good or
bad. He chooses to observe a steady, dignified tempo. While it is slower than
Beethoven’s tempo markings would indicate, it’s close to what a lot of older,
traditional conductors such as Bohm, Barbirolli, and Klemperer provide. More
important, Manze keeps one’s attention for the duration, never allowing the
music to sound like an actual dirge, even if it is one.

It’s in the Scherzo
that Manze shows off his period credentials, taking the composer at his word
and producing a very quick, bubbly concoction that’s hard to resist.

Nevertheless, it’s in the Finale where Manze and his players truly shine. Tying the closing
statement nicely to the first movement, he opens broadly, then proceeds to a
stately gait, followed by a gradual quickening. Manze adroitly controls the ebb
and flow of the music while providing grace and excitement aplenty, especially
in the big final moments. I enjoyed this interpretation immensely for its
sensible, well-governed, yet bold enterprise, the interpretation seeming to get
better as it goes along.

Coupled with the Third
we find Beethoven’s twelve little Contredanses
and then the finale of the ballet from The
Creatures of Prometheus
. It’s not only good music, we see the relationships
in the music. Listen to the seventh Contredanse,
the ballet music, and then the Finale
to the Third, and you’ll see what I
mean. Together, it puts the icing on a very tasty cake.

The sound Harmonia Mundi obtain is beautifully clear,
detailed, and well balanced tonally, with just the right amount of resonance
and air around the instruments. Recorded in SACD at Helsingborgs Konserthus,
Helsingborg, Sweden, in 2007, the sonics are among the best I’ve heard in this
work. I listened to the SACD stereo and regular stereo layers of this hybrid
stereo/multichannel recording and found them both dynamic and wide ranging, the
SACD sounding a touch more precise and forceful. If there is any small reservation
I might have it’s that there is sometimes a bit too much activity from the left
side of the stage, with not quite enough to fill in the middle. In fairness, I
only noticed this effect on occasion, so it is probably not worth mentioning.
Otherwise, we hear a strong, taut transient response, with a percussion and
impact that never sounded better in a recording of the Third.


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