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Karol KURPIŃSKI (1785-1857)
The Battle of Mozhaysk [18:20]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN
Symphony No. 3 in E flat major Eroica Op. 55 [49:15]
Orchestra of the 18th Century/Frans Brüggen
rec. live, Witold Lutosławski Concert Studio of Polish Radio, Warsaw, 25 August 2013; Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall, 3 September 2005

The late Frans Brüggen recorded the complete Beethoven Symphonies twice (Philips, Glossa), the latter being a set of live recordings made in Rotterdam in 2011.

The present recording is of a slightly earlier live performance, this time in Warsaw as part of the "Chopin and his Europe" Festival. The audience are only apparent by their applause at the end but the intensity of a live event is clear right from the start. The first movement is taken at a steady pace which would not have surprised conductors of an earlier generation. This contrasts with the hectic speed too many conductors employ today which obscures much crucial detail. Such detail is apparent from the outset in the unusually clearly articulated off-beat crochets of the first violins in bars seven and eight and the clarity of the rising arpeggio in the cellos and basses in bars forty-seven and forty-eight. Throughout there is a care for balance and articulation so as to expose all that is going on in this extraordinary score. The long first movement repeat is welcome not only for the four bars that would otherwise be lost but for the opportunity to relish again the subtlety of the conductor's approach. The Funeral March by contrast is taken at a relatively brisk pace but here too care over phrasing ensures that it never sounds glib. One of the rare disappointments is the very polite tone of the horns in the Trio of the Scherzo - I prefer something much more raw. The Finale achieves real poise in the conductor's care over the relative speeds of its various sections. My only regret is that the differentiation between forte and fortissimo is not always as clear as it can be. Beethoven tends to use this distinction to aid punctuation and add emphasis so that this tends to reduce the impact of the louder passages. Overall this is nonetheless a performance of real understanding and subtlety to which I am sure I will return frequently.

I am less sure that I want to return to its companion, for all its historical interest. Karol Kurpiński was a Polish composer and conductor. His Battle of Mozhaysk (later renamed "Grand Symphony depicting a battle") was intended to celebrate Napoleon's victory at Borodino. Both works on the disc were thus originally intended to celebrate Napoleon. By the date of its first performance, however, Napoleon had already started his disastrous retreat from Russia. Unusually for a Battle Symphony, a genre which includes much extremely poor music, most of the first sections depicting Night, Daybreak and Sunrise are not warlike in character. They could be re-titled as a Pastoral Symphony given their imitations of the sounds of birds and cocks. Before and after the main battle section there is a Grand March for the parade of Napoleon's various troops. The battle itself includes all the customary effects of that genre apart from actual gun or cannon shots. Admirers of Beethoven's Wellington's Victory may well enjoy this piece but I find it hard to summon much enthusiasm for it.

This is nonetheless a disc well worth hearing for the Beethoven. Frans Brüggen manages by sheer musicianship and care over detail to say much about a work you may feel you know by heart. Clear recording and useful notes make this a very desirable addition to any Beethoven collection no matter how many versions of the Eroica you may have already.

John Sheppard