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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No.3 in E flat major, Op.55 “Eroica” (1803) [49:16]
Orchestra of the 18th Century/Frans Brüggen
rec. live, Nijmegen, The Netherlands, November 1987. DDD
PHILIPS 422052 [49:16]
Experience Classicsonline

Frans Brüggen’s pioneering Eroica is a period performance for those who don't like period performances. Yes, his orchestra is small and they play period instruments, but unlike some of his fellow HIP-sters, Brüggen manages a suavity and beauty in his interpretation. His tempi are sprightly without being particularly quick, deriving the impression of pace and momentum more from crisp rhythms and sharp articulation than from sheer speed. He presents the symphony as a Classical work, in which Beethoven builds on existing models rather than tearing them down. True, tragedy is not as deeply etched as we might expect in the grinding discords and pounding deaf noises of the first movement, and the second movement’s funeral march is touched by more sadness than pain, but Brüggen’s account does not lack for drama: instead, it keeps dramatic gestures in proportion.
In an odd way Brüggen’s account of the Eroica reminds me of Cluytens' old Berlin recording on EMI. While they approach Beethoven's score from completely different performing traditions, Cluytens and Brüggen have a lot in common. They prize the beauty and elegance of this symphony. The contrast between Brüggen’s recording and Norrington's roughly contemporaneous period instrument account on EMI (now rebranded and reboxed on Virgin) is in some ways much greater. Norrington's account does not flow as smoothly through its transitions as Brüggen’s does, but it packs a mighty punch. Norrington is determined to kick you in the seat of your pants, to remind you just how revolutionary this music was in its time, and to cast aside all vestiges of the performing tradition that has grown up around this symphony since. Brüggen does not reject that tradition out of hand, but pares it back so as to lay the score bare with utmost clarity and elegance.
The atmosphere of this live performance is electric. Close miking minimises audience noise and adds to the effect of spotlighting individual members of the orchestra from all sections. The strings manage to play with sweetness of tone despite being few in number and eschewing vibrato, and the brass and woodwinds cut through the textures easily and with impact.
At less than 50 minutes, we may grumble that this Arkiv CD is poor value. However, while an overture filler would have been nice, serious Beethovenians will jump at the chance to hear this Eroica.
Tim Perry


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