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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 55 Eroica (1803) [44:25]
Twelve Contredanses, WoO. 14 (1802): No. 1 in C major [0:28]; No. 2 in A major [0:32]; No. 3 in D major [1:00]; No. 4 in B flat major [0:28]; No. 5 in E flat major [1:07]; No. 6 in C major [1:11]; No. 7 in E flat major [0:33]; No. 8 in C major [0:28]; No. 9 in A major [0:28]; No. 10 in C major [0:57]; No. 11 in G major [0:31]; No. 12 in E flat major [1:40]
Funeral March from the incidental music to Leonore Prohaska, WoO. 96 (1815) [4:57]
Romance No. 1 in G major, Op. 40* (c. 1800-02) [5:34]
Romance No. 2 in F major, Op. 50* (c. 1795) [7:04]
Katarina Andreasson (violin) *
Swedish Chamber Orchestra Örebro/Thomas Dausgaard
rec. Örebro Concert Hall, May, October 2002. DDD
SIMAX PSC 1281 [71:34]
 


This is volume 8 of a series of Beethoven’s complete orchestral works. Volume 1 featured these performers in Symphonies 1 and 2, Volume 2 in Symphonies 4 and 5, Volume 4 in Symphony 7 and Volume 6 in Symphony 6. The present disc is distinctive in that it couples the Eroica Symphony with some orchestral works which have connections with it. Dausgaard’s context is thus an awareness of both precursors and successors.
 
Perhaps this explains why Dausgaard’s performance is such a tremendous one with a distinct character of its own. It has edge to it. Those famous two opening chords aren’t thunderous but biting and crisp, followed by tingling second violins and violas’ quavers and a deft leaning on the sforzando by the first violins at the climax of their opening phrase (0:13). This skill is important as there are 48 ‘horizontal’ sforzandi in the first movement exposition alone.
 
The first full orchestra statement of the main theme (0:41) is as boisterous as you could wish, the beginning of the second theme (0:50) slightly cheeky in its cheeriness and the later, quieter elements (1:31) moments of smooth repose without loss of momentum. The development bounces along with more of those lightly stabbing sforzandi and every syncopation felt.
 
It’s the realization of Beethoven’s contrasts within the whole that makes the performance attractive. The recapitulation is ushered in by a soft horn call (10:08) before a massively invigorating full orchestra response. In the coda the horns lightly articulate the main theme at 14:31 while the first violins shimmer around, yet the following crescendo is effectively applied in transition to the fiery affirmation of the trumpets’ entry at 14:58.
 
Dausgaard’s relatively swift tempo for the second movement Funeral March heightens the sense of incidents within and around the procession. The precise, almost clipped, military rhythms in the bass bring a trim formality over which woodwind especially and occasionally individual string parts add personal comments shot through with sforzandi which are here like pangs of grief. A notable example at close quarters is the second violins’ sforzando at tr. 2 3:14 followed by the first violins’ sforzando at 3:15, aided in this recording by the placing of the seconds right and firsts left of the conductor.
 
The section in C major from 3:49, whether recall of happier times or hope of resurrection, is particularly comely in Dausgaard’s flowing tempo and climaxes at 4:10 and 5:00 in blazing military salutes. The fugue from 6:09, introduced with startling stentorian quality by bassoons and violas, is rigorously displayed.
 
Dausgaard’s third movement scherzo has a frisky, feathery, even stealthy reawakening quality generated by the strings and matched by the woodwind. The horns in the trio are a burnished confirmation of that new growth. Everything is bracing. The syncopations flash forth.
 
I admire the way Dausgaard makes the loud opening of the finale simply a rhetorical flourish without bluster, a brief stylish bow before playful soft strings and stimulating loud wind interjections immediately followed by soft echoes. This is only the first variation, but the vivacity and humour of the entire movement is set. It just races by, without any feel of haste. The theme itself isn’t fully revealed till the third variation at 1:45 and its darting exuberance in this performance leads with a sense of total rightness to the most festive version of the initial bass motif from the trumpets. Even the G minor variation at 3:43 with the theme in the bass is here exhilarating, while the Poco Andante variation at 5:45 is by contrast suitably luscious and laid-back.
 
I compared the best known chamber orchestra recording, the 1990 Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Nikolaus Harnoncourt (Elatus 2564 600342).
           


Timings   

   I   

II

III     

IV

tt
Harnoncourt 15:53  14:35   5:37 11:27
47:49
Dausgaard  15:47  12:49 5:22 12:24
44:25

 
Both recordings include the first movement exposition repeat. As can be seen, the main differences in timings are a swifter Funeral March from Dausgaard but a slightly slower finale. But even in the first movement Harnoncourt appears more measured, less helter-skelter, partly because his brass dominate the strings a little more, though his quieter elements are creamier. He shows an immense confidence in projection and both shocks and charms. Dausgaard’s closer recording and string playing are more abrasive, closer to period instrument performance than Harnoncourt. His concern is more with respite than charm.
 
Harnoncourt’s slower Funeral March is more stately and doleful, spacious, solemn and desolate; but his sforzandi seem more mannered, less natural in feeling than Dausgaard’s. Harnoncourt’s scherzo is rather heavier humour than Dausgaard’s and the trio is marred by exaggerated leaning on every recurrence of the second note sforzando of the horns’ theme. In the opening variations of the finale Harnoncourt is more polished and smooth, more consciously crafted with a stylishness that takes away a little of the spontaneity. Dausgaard’s Eroica isn’t a weighty, epic affair in the manner of, say, the 1955 Philharmonia/Klemperer, but it’s probably closer to Beethoven’s conception in rhythmic drive and vitality.
 
You’re made more aware of Beethoven’s creative processes by the juxtaposition in this CD of his Twelve Contredanses, number 7 of which is an earlier version of the Eroica finale theme. In this context (tr. 11) it’s a bright but quite unpretentious melody with nothing of the grandeur and nobility it attains in the symphony. And then you’re also more conscious of Beethoven’s deconstruction of it at the beginning of that finale. But I found another link not flagged in this CD’s booklet notes. Contredanse number 5 (tr. 9) contains at 0:16 and later repeated what is essentially part of the tail of the Eroica finale theme, the bit first heard on the oboe (tr. 4 1:59).
 
The contredanse was a development of the French court version of the English country dance. Contredanses are great fun, not least because I think you’d find it difficult to name the composer. The first (tr. 5), jollier and more melodious than most, you might put down to Schubert, while the sparkling nature and calm contrasts of the sixth (tr. 10) could almost be a very terse Schubert scherzo. As you can see from the heading, the contredanses differ in key and length, the latter down to the number of internally varied step and therefore music sequences. They’re full of offbeat surprises and would require very nifty dancers indeed to keep up with Dausgaard’s lively tempi at which they breeze along. Number 8 (tr. 12) boasts a tambourine obbligato. The trenchant number 10 (tr. 14) seems a 19th century barn dance, while number 12 (tr. 16) is a more sophisticated mix of the slightly dreamy and buoyant. Enjoy.
 
Next comes the Funeral March on the Death of a Hero Beethoven wrote before that in the Eroica. This is the third movement of Piano Sonata 12, Op. 26 (1801). Here it’s presented in the orchestral version Beethoven made at the request of the playwright Friedrich Duncker in 1815 for the incidental music to his play Leonore Prohaska, where it honours her death. You might like to think of it also being played, as it was in 1827, in Beethoven’s own funeral procession. But how does it compare with the original piano version?
 
I listened to Alfred Brendel’s 1994 recording (Philips 4388632). Paradoxically the link with the Eroica March is closer in this version. It’s more personal, shot through with anger, anguish and pathos. The contrasting middle section is more defiant. The orchestral version is more formal and decorous, the bass and bass trills subtler, the drum only taps softly. The sforzandi are marked but few. The middle section is more dramatic but its two four-bar phrases aren’t repeated. The coda is shortened. The overall effect is more chaste and dignified but also comparatively neutral.
 
This CD ends with Beethoven’s two Romances for violin and orchestra, beautifully played by Katarina Andreasson, the leader of the Swedish Chamber Orchestra Örebro. She’s expressive without being too sweet. The first Romance emerges as a savoured meditation yet with touches of character. For instance, careful observation of the soloist’s quaver rest at 0:40 points up the orchestral repeat’s variant of two quavers at 0:54 and, in turn, the soloist can then give the rest even more poise at 2:48. The central section is more assertive before the opening theme returns in silkier upper register. Dausgaard brings an airy quality to the orchestration.
 
The second Romance finds Beethoven more characteristically elegant and humane. Now Andreasson brings a hint of wistfulness to her sheeny line and the central section is more purposeful. The bassoons seem curiously over prominent in the first orchestral response. In both Romances I compared the 1997 Thomas Zehetmair with the Orchestra of the 18th Century/Frans Brüggen (Philips 4621232). They project the first Romance more sweepingly and the second more smoothly. Zehetmair has more presence in the first Romance and is more exquisite in the second, but I prefer the fresher, more clean-cut approach of Andreasson and Dausgaard.
           
To sum up, this performance of the Eroica symphony lets you see it in a new light and in a context that is itself fresh and illuminating.
 
Michael Greenhalgh
 

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