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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 55 Eroica (1803) [49:54]
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin/Kent Nagano
Video Directors: Oliver Becker (documentary), Ellen Fellmann (concert)
Writers: Reiner Schild and Rolf Rische
rec. Philharmonic Hall, Berlin, DDD.
Sound formats PCM Stereo, DD 5.1, DTS 5.1.
Picture format NTSC 16:9.
Disc format DVD 9.
Region code 0 (all regions). Subtitles French, Italian, Japanese, Spanish.
ARTHAUS MUSIK 101 429  [105:22]

Is this the classical music DVD of the future? It’s a 54 minute concert combined with a 52 minute documentary, one of six featuring a symphony by different composers. I’m happy to start with the music. This is a refreshing, invigorating performance. The famous two opening chords are arresting and explosive yet the sforzandi thereafter dance. The second theme (tr.2 1:37) is smoother yet kept animated, its third element (2:20) allowed to ponder more, but its fourth (2:52) bounces along. There’s just sheer relish in the blazing 5 repeated chords. The exposition is repeated. The development (6:38) has a suitable sense of mystery and then a keen vigour as the first and second themes combine (7:18). The new, third theme (9:13) is beguilingly presented, well balanced between its oboes and second violin and cello elements. Later in the striding string bass Nagano finds an energizing kick. At the recapitulation the horn solo is rather fruity for the marking ‘sweet’ but has a lovely glow with that same first theme in the coda against delicate violin tracery. And in the peroration all guns blaze.

In the Funeral March Nagano conveys both the formality and humanity of mourning. On the one hand there’s the vivid carriage drag depicted by the clarity of the doublebasses, on the other the momentum Nagano gives the procession. The second theme (tr. 3 18:33) is both more assertive and faces the reality of death and therefore becomes more poignant in the grieving associated with it. The central passage in C major is a happy recollection of what the hero stood for with a blistering climax soon expunged by the returning reality of the procession. Nagano makes the fugal section (24:29) rigorously formal and weighty. This is a mighty monument, after which the recapitulation is rather warmer.

Nagano begins the Scherzo in crisp and inviting fashion. This is the music of rejuvenation, vivacious and resilient with bracing full orchestra passages. The Trio is taken at a fractionally more comfortable tempo for the 3 horns’ articulation which is pleasingly jolly and rotund, full charming measure being given to the slight lingering character of their final phrase.

By contrast Nagano makes a gloriously swaggering flourish of the 11 bar introduction to the finale, but if you want to play the complete finale separately you’ll have to use your fast reverse and begin at tr. 4 38:33. Track 5 (38:46) begins at the first appearance of the theme in the bass. This is smiling but the soft strings’ pizzicato is rather weighty. The second variation (39:55), on the other hand, achieves full charm in the measure of its crescendo and decrescendo. In the third variation (40:30), the theme is robustly treated by full orchestra after its first outing on creamy oboe. Nagano presents the fugue of the fourth variation (41:15) with attractive clarity. In the fifth variation (42:12) he offers at first a cool repose but in the sixth (42:47) rugged fervour. Then the seventh (43:32) is smoother, with a gentler fugue a foil for the heavyweight climax. The eighth variation (45:05) sees rosy flowering from oboes, clarinets and bassoons, as marked Poco Andante and con espressione but without detriment to the momentum nor light touch as the music progresses. This allows another contrast in the glowing first horn presentation of the theme in variation 9 (46:51). To the coda (49:23) Nagano brings a carnival atmosphere of festive bounce. In sum this is a performance of great clarity of structure and texture combined with spontaneity of expression inclined to the raucous. This makes an enjoyable combination and experience.

I compared the 2000 performance on DVD by the SWR Sinfonieorchester/Michael Gielen (Euroarts 2050609). Here are the actual music comparative timings:

Timings   

I

 II   

III

IV     

Total

Nagano

16:26

14:53

5:37

11:24

48:20

Gielen

15:24

12:58

5:42

10:00

44:04

Gielen’s opening is clean cut but not as arresting as Nagano’s. Gielen favours a clean, finely balanced line whereas Nagano prefers a startling and at times abrasive clarity aided by excellent surround sound. Gielen spotlights the lyrical aspects more, so the second theme is more mellifluous and charming in its interplay of woodwind and strings. He blends and can be seen toning down the sound at times, a rather Olympian presence directing the music. But the coda is expertly and effectively scaled up. Nagano, on the other hand, you see more spontaneously involved in the present music making. Not using a baton he can be more expressive with his hands. His opening has immediately more impact and there’s more bite to all the loud passages, revolutionary with a capital R. At the beginning of the development he creates a more palpable sense of mystery than Gielen and more tension within it. His slightly slower tempo overall provides for greater internal contrasts. The camerawork for Gielen is conventional but on this DVD for Nagano we get close-up overhead shots, zoom and panning whirring around, not a comfortable view but suited to a performance which isn’t intended as a comfortable listen.

Gielen’s Funeral March is dignified but everything is kept neatly in its due place, the regularity of tempo, faster than Nagano’s, is an aspect of this. Emotion is clear but kept in check. With Nagano there’s more rawness, a sense of protest underlying the rigour of the proceedings which gives them more tension. For example, the colouring of the cello line from tr. 3 18:58 is very expressive, in accord with the violins and anticipating the cello espressivo marking at their solo at 19:14. This is both caring and desolate. The later fugue is firm yet with a compelling sense of progression which feeds the splendour of its fulfilment. The trumpet calls at 27:02 just before the recapitulation seem like the Last Judgement.

Gielen’s Scherzo is light and sunny. It teems with life. His Trio is notable for its alert, dancing horns. Nagano’s Scherzo is vivacious owing to its clarity of texture and powerful sense of progression with the passages for full orchestra really bursting into life. Taking the Trio just a shade slower gives its melody a lift and grace.

Gielen’s pacy finale has a stylish progression and light touch. The strings’ rhythmic acuity in the fourth variation fugue is contrasted well with the brighter flute solo in variation 5. His Poco Andante variation 8 is a melodious, sunny homage, less emotive than Nagano’s, before a firm coda. Nagano brings more weight to the finale. He is less playful than Gielen yet shows some rounded humour and tone which allows  charm in the oboe’s presentation of the theme. But his presentation seeks out and spotlights drama and rhetoric, with clear interest in the rhythmic resilience of the fourth variation fugue, a seriousness underpinning the movement’s progression and melodious reverence to the Poco Andante. Gielen shows how Beethoven evolved from 18th century practice. Nagano presents him trailblazing into the 19th century.

Nagano’s DVD has a documentary as a bonus. This is based around the concert performance, much of which you therefore re-experience in the light of Nagano’s comments, a few contributions from the players and two brief historical scenes featuring Beethoven as a cartoon character with an American accent. These latter may appeal to a those keen on animation. I thought an actor could have got across the actual Beethoven quotations with more impact. No matter, the players’ perspectives are a welcome novelty. One cellist points out Beethoven uses the cello to create a stormy sound and illustrates both the rhythmic and lyrical aspects of his writing. Another cellist speaks of Beethoven’s very transparent writing as a result of which ‘You often feel you are playing on your own’. You remember this later when a first violinist talks of the ‘transparent sound’ Nagano achieves. I agree. She reflects on the ‘bleak colour’ wanted in the Funeral March, also on the discipline of suppressing your individuality when playing in a group but psychological satisfaction this brings, playing together harmoniously. A horn player speaks about the challenge and adrenalin of the Trio because ‘you never know how quickly the conductor is going to take it’.

Nagano also offers plenty of insight gradually, cumulatively introduced and in an unpretentious manner. For instance, he finds in Beethoven ‘a vertical concept of sound space that we’ve never had before which gives a dimension of eternity, deeply spiritual and emotional’. Later you see him in rehearsal of the Funeral March asking for more emotion. Another link later still is when he talks about the orchestra being ‘a flexible instrument, courageous and bold’ which ‘has to make sense vertically’ of the music ‘and simultaneously horizontally have logic to it’ in order to respect the genius of Beethoven. There’s a particular tension about this work ‘because it’s about the spirit of humanity, you can’t treat it in a routine way’. The key elements of the work for him are its sense of progression and how its heroic ideals allow the individual to dream positively, that is hope. Also the emphasis on how important human development is rather than arriving at a stable goal at the end. In the finale ‘you feel the variations are going through an eternal sense of development’.

This fresh and electric performance allows you to see the Eroica in a new light. The documentary enhances that experience by revealing something of what makes it tick.

Michael Greenhalgh

 

 


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