> Beethoven - Symphony 3 § 4 [GPJ]: Classical Reviews- March 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Ludwig Van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony no. 3 in Eb, op.55, "Eroica"
Symphony no. 4 in Bb, op.60
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Abbado
Recorded Berlin Philharmonie, Grosser Saal, Dec. 1999 (no.4), March 2000 (no.3)
DG 471 488 [79:29]


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Those who heard the BPO on its UK visit last Summer will know that the orchestra is in great shape, even if Abbado was too ill to be on the podium. During his reign, the sound has lost some weight; the overwhelming lushness of the Karajan years is not so noticeable, though still there when needed. Instead, we have a leaner sound, with less of the extravagantly plush strings that could sometimes lead wind soloists in the orchestra to force their tone simply to get through. One of the most notable features of these fine performances is how effortlessly details are heard, without any suspicion of ‘spotlighting’ from the DG engineers. The result is, for example, an Eroica first movement bustling with energy rather than proceeding with grandeur, reminding us that Beethoven was still a young man in his early thirties when he completed this astounding work. Abbado and the Berliners manage to keep the momentum right up to the final terse Eb chords, giving the movement a glorious sweep and unity.

The funeral march may worry some people; the tempo marking is Adagio assai – very slow indeed. This version moves far more freely than most; on the other hand, Abbado is very close to the metronome mark in the score, quaver=80, and Norrington and others have taught us to pay close attention to Beethoven’s markings rather than regard them as the products of faulty early metronome technology! This argument, however, is far less important than listening to what works in musical terms, and on that basis, here is a gripping performance of this sometimes overbearing movement. The playing of the BPO’s principal oboe is glorious, and many hitherto unnoticed details shine through – to take one example, listen to the low horns at Track 2, 10:16.

The Scherzo receives a fleet-footed and finely characterised performance, while the finale is given one of the most wholly convincing readings I’ve heard. The humour of the opening comes over strongly, and although the oboe’s first announcement of the main theme (track 4 1:44] suffers from the customary balance problems, this, I fear, is more Beethoven’s fault than the performers’.

Such problems are rare; one is carried along on the tidal wave of creative energy that Beethoven unleashes here. Irresistible music-making that had me letting out a solo whoop of exultation at the close!

The Fourth – possibly Beethoven’s least well-known symphony, and certainly the most underrated – begins with another example of Beethoven’s wicked sense of humour. This generally sunny and good-natured work has the darkest and softest opening of any of the symphonies apart from the 9th; Abbado captures this wonderfully well, and then simply explodes into the Allegro, which is given a thrilling performance, its wit and eventfulness explored to the full.

The slow movement (Adagio) is relaxed and spacious, dispelling any possibility that Abbado’s fast speeds in the Eroica are a stylistic ‘statement’. One senses there that he is aware of the need to keep the music on its toes throughout the vast structures that Beethoven creates. Here in the 4th, the music is more concise and he can be a touch more leisurely when it suits him. Indeed, I could do with a scherzo that is more explosive and dynamic than Abbado’s. On the other hand, I appreciated his acknowledgement of the fact that the Finale, often a scrambling Presto, is marked by Beethoven Allegro ma non troppo (i.e ‘fast but not too much so’- the ‘ma non troppo’ is quite emphatic). At this speed, not only do the more expressive moments blossom, but the principal bassoon can articulate the semiquavers of the main theme’s recapitulation without dislocating his jaw!

A splendid issue, then, with a very strong coupling; though some may find Abbado’s approach to the Eroica light-weight, I do not, and would put it right up there with Carlos Kleiber’s great VPO recording. The Fourth is less well represented on disc, and this fizzing but affectionate reading is surely the modern recording to go for. At over 79 minutes, it’s pretty good value, too.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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