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
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