Aureole etc.

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Faure songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett



Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony no. 3 in E flat Eroica
Symphony no. 4 in B flat
Radio Symphony Orchestra of Stuttgart/Sir Roger Norrington.
Rec. 1999? SWR

I have waited 45 years for a definitive recording of the Beethoven symphonies. I need wait no longer. These performances are simply magnificent and will not be bettered.

I have so many recordings of the Beethoven symphonies from the dull Teutonic versions by Klemperer with such atrocious slow speeds that they are unbearable, to the Karajan versions which are not true Beethoven since this conductor arrogantly makes unauthorized changes in Beethoven's scripts and then to the sheer lunacy of the madly eccentric versions by Rattle on EMI which are so awful that I filled up three sheets of lined A4 paper listing this conductor's deviations in the opening movement of the Eroica alone. Stupidly Rattle puts drama into Beethoven which he does not have to. It is already there as Beethoven wrote it.

But Norrington and his performers are out of this world and they cannot be praised highly enough.

It is my view that the Eroica is the first great symphony in history but it has been bedevilled by all the nonsense about both its dedicatee and its purpose and the alterations to its dedication as if those things matter. Some bright spark, who calls himself a musicologist, referred to it as the French revolution symphony and devoted endless lectures to attempt to prove his hypothesis.

It is a work of sheer genius. The main theme of the opening allegro is predominantly the common triad of E flat major in arpeggio form. It is not a melody or a tune thus defying those people who say that all good music must have a tune or a melody. There may be a similarity with the 39th symphony of Mozart. Schubert tried to emulate Beethoven's ideas in his own Ninth Symphony but, as with so much Schubert all he does is repeat, repeat, repeat in what is, after all, a tedious symphony despite it being called ‘The Great’ which refers to its length and not its quality. Sir Adrian Boult hated it!

Listen to the first two minutes of the first movement of the Eroica (track one) where Norrington sets the scene for a truly remarkable performance. Indeed, the scope and scale of the opening movement of the Eroica is stupendous, the first expansive masterpiece of musical architecture. Norrington is never dull. His tempo is excellent. The music is very exciting and the attention to detail a sheer delight. The first climax (bar 37ff.) is very powerful and this is followed by the most exquisite woodwind phrasing (bars 45ff.). Listen to the splendid staccato in the lower strings at bar 51 and ask have you ever heard it so clearly as here? The balance throughout could hardly be bettered and the sforzandos (bar 128) are there, all six of them. Norrington also captures the waltz-like lilt. He plays the exposition repeat and the woodwind excel again (bars 170ff.). Staccatos are observed and the quasi fugato section (bar 241ff) is splendid. The oboe and cello duet (bar 288ff.) sings and the trio for two clarinets and bassoon at 326 is quite lovely. What I also admire is the attack of the timpani and its accuracy. Take bars 369- 371 there are six separate timpani E flats and that is what we get. In the version by another conductor, who I will not name but who is unjustly revered, we don't get that but a drum roll! I marvelled at the secure and mercurial horn solo at 412 which blended perfectly into the oboe taking the theme up. Little things are observed. In bar 440 one timpani note is marked più forte and in this version it is! Listen to the tremendous swagger at bar 471 onwards, the sheer exuberance and controlled excitement and the build up towards the end of the movement is breathtaking!

You won't better this. You want to stand and shout and applaud in your own living room! There is life in this performance with a vibrancy and vitality that is superlative. Beethoven lives in this performance. He is not a Klemperer corpse!

The Funeral March presents problems. Often it is played so slow that it drags painfully. While it is known how careless Beethoven was with his metronome marking, Norrington takes it at pace which keeps it moving and rightly so. The movement is really an elegy and it must not be too slow. Beethoven had a marvellous ability to be impersonal in his outpouring of sorrow and the superb fugal section reveals the idea that emotional is matter of fact. The movement opens with those sinister double bass triplet grace notes and the oboe solo that follows and throughout the piece is simply beautiful. I must admit that the music is bitty at times but the sonority that Norrington produces is excellent (bar 16ff, for example) the first timpani entry is softly telling and the hollow bassoon playing (bar 43ff.) really captures the mood . The maggiore passage is impressive not the least for the perfect woodwind playing and the first climax up to bar 100 is stunning. The fugato is both brilliantly conceived and expertly executed. Have you noticed at bar 159 a precursor of the slow movement of the Seventh symphony with the repeated horn notes? And the use of simple common chords as arpeggios (here it is A flat major) that appears in bar 209? The closing bars are sinister yet strangely magical and very expressive.

Again, listen to the first two minutes of this movement (track 2) and sample how detailed this performance is.

The scherzo has also suffered at the hands of conductors. Much as I admire Toscanini he took this movement too fast. Norrington is excellent here with a welcome contrast between soft and loud music. The movement is deceptively simple. All the repeats are played and the trio is the heart of the movement with that triumphant horn trio which has all the indications of how Beethoven loved rural life in this wonderful outdoor music. The original sketches for this movement took the form of a minuet with prominent horns.

It seems that Beethoven was now fatigued with the composition of this masterpiece. The main theme from the incidental music for Prometheus is here in what is the least satisfactory movement. It is stop and start music; quasi variations. But there are still moments of sheer genius and originality which are essential for any work. No finale like this had been written before. There are many interesting features. In bar 119 there is a three note phrase that was to dominate the four note theme of the Fifth Symphony. It is in two-four time starting with a quaver rest and three quavers. In the Fifth Symphony many conductors plays it as three crotchets as a triplet and accent the first note whereas the accent is on the quaver rest.

The woodwind excel again. The flute solos are absolutely delightful. I am sorry that Beethoven introduces a slow section at 311 marked Poco Andante. The music loses its momentum. He also did this in the finale of the Fourth Symphony (and the Fifth) but for all the weaknesses of this closing movement of the Eroica there is welcome rhythmic contrast. The finale presto is a real scurry and leads to a terrific ending. Well, almost. Bars 463 to 470 are somewhat silly. Beethoven does not know when to stop. Sibelius had the same trouble with his own E flat symphony and Beethoven repeats this weakness with the end of the finale of his Fifth symphony. But this Eroica ends in a blaze of glorious triumph and Norrington has given us the best recording of all.

The Symphony no. 4 must be Beethoven's finest symphony but it is undervalued. It is a work of unqualified mastery. It owes something to Haydn whereas the Eroica issues in a new era. The slow opening is beautifully captured here with a wonderful sense of expectation. It is mysterious, ambiguous and the tonic chord appears only once. A powerful section leads to the sunny opening theme and the resultant blaze of glory with striding bass is one of the most welcome moments in music. It is fun. It is pastoral. It is accessible. It is lovely. It is music that does the soul good and how superbly it is played. Robert Graves said that Beethoven was the bard of music.

The design and structure of this movement is without equal. It has a compelling logic and onward drive. The creativity and imagination is beyond words and Norrington and his players give it life. The performance exudes confidence and a joy that music rarely yields. The sparkle is infectious. Top rate. Wonderful warm music with an elegance only matched by Mendelssohn. And the sheer genius of Beethoven is that in this movement he introduces further mysteries. This adds to the tension and then suddenly the dam bursts (a glorious moment) and sheer joy engulfs us all. The real success is that Norrington makes the music scintillate with a brisk and utterly convincing tempo.

Sample the last three minutes of this opening movement (track five from say 6.56 onwards) and hear the life and energy of this sterling performance

Berlioz adored the slow movement. In contrast to lesser composers, and most composers are, Beethoven has a melody in which no bars are alike in rhythm. It is cantabile. There is no message, only beauty and a strange sweetness that Norrington realises perfectly. But it is a shade too fast for my taste. I think it needs to breathe a little more. There are some beautifully captured orchestral dialogues and all that the timpanist does is very refreshing, adding punctuation to a marvellous movement

The sound is first class.

The scherzo is rather like a quick minuet but is full of vigour and joy. The harmonies are unusual at times and how Beethoven varies his material is impressive. Contrast this with Schubert who seldom, if ever, varied his material or key so that in the first movement of his Symphony no. 5 in B flat his main theme keeps returning in the same key, the same pitch and the same rhythm. But here with Beethoven we do not have an amateur but a genius.

The finale is genial and very exciting and, at times, blazes with warmth. I still think the slow device just before the end lets the piece down. It bounces along with a real gusto and is another feel-good movement. Norrington's control is faultless and, as in the first movement, the woodwind are truly excellent. Listen to the cheeky chappie, the bassoon, in the finale. When we consider Beethoven as a man, deaf, truculent, scruffy and embroiled in domestic upheavals with a suicidal nephew this sunny and cheerful work is a real surprise.

Not only is this CD given the highest recommendation here, I have to say that if you do not add it to your collection you will be missing something of unequalled excellence and will be all the poorer!

David C F Wright

See David Wright's essay on Beethoven on this website

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