Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No.3 in E-flat major Eroica, op.55 (1803) [49:00]
Symphony No.4 in B flat major, Op.60 (1806) [34:12]
Symphony No.7 in A major, Op 92 (1812) [40:08]
Philharmonie Festiva/Gerd Schaller
rec. live 25 May, 2014 (No.3); 22 September, 2013 (No.4); 21 September, 2014 (No.7), Historischer Kaisersaal von Kloster, Ebrach, Germany
PROFIL PH15030 [49:00 + 74:20]

If you seek a change from the Big Band Romanticism of post-war Beethoven and want a modern take on the symphonies which eschews breakneck speeds, vinegary, vibrato-free strings and brutally clipped phrasing, then I thoroughly recommend this unusual enterprise.

These are live recording made in the comparatively small Kaisersaal at the Ebrach Festival over the two summers of 2013 and 2014, seeking to replicate the acoustic of the kind of venue the composer would himself have “heard”, if he could, at first performances – by 1812 his hearing was all but gone. There were no purpose-built concert halls as such so the locations would have been either theatres or grand rooms in the palaces of the aristocracy who commissioned such compositions and to whom they were so often dedicated. Furthermore, the number of musicians is similar to what Beethoven would have been able to summon, despite his desire for more: a mere thirty-five.

If all this is setting off alarm bells in the heads of those congenitally intolerant of Period Practice Beethoven, let me reassure you that the effect is far from scrawny or small-scale. Apart from some slight lack of “grunt” in the lower strings, these performances have real bite and pep, and the reduction in strings permits the inner voices and harmonies to emerge more clearly and the woodwind to assume a more prominent role, emphasising subtleties which are often lost in the wash of string sound. I felt in safe hands the minute I heard the attack of those opening crashing chords in the “Eroica”. Unlike too many Period Practitioners, Gerd Schaller does not conveniently forget the import of the symphony’s title and directs with real urgency and attack, bringing out the heroic struggle of this titanic music without resorting to scampering tempi and meaningless speed. This is a fleet but grand account, suffused with inner tension.

The opening of the Fourth is wonderfully mysterious and suspenseful, and the drive of the performance as a whole gives the lie to Schumann’s oft-quoted but essentially fallacious description of this symphony as “a slender Greek maiden between two Nordic giants”. Dynamic variations are especially well executed and the textures of the music emerge without any undue delicacy or mimsiness.

The Seventh is lithe and propulsive; perhaps there is some lack of weight in the climaxes but in general this is a thrilling performance.

Try it – you’ll be surprised.

Ralph Moore

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