Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Resound Beethoven Volume 4  
Symphony No.3 in E flat, op. 55 (1803-5), Eroica [49:19]
Septet, op. 20 (1799-1800) [40:53] 
Orchester Wiener Akademie/Martin Haselböck
rec. live Eroica Hall, Palais Lobkowitz, Vienna, 20-25 May 2016, DDD 
ALPHA 474 [49:19 + 40:53]

This is the fourth release in the series ‘Resound Beethoven’ in which his works are performed in Vienna locations where they were premièred or played in his lifetime. Here the Eroica Symphony is performed in the Eroica Hall of the Palais Lobkowitz, then called the concert hall, where the work received its first, private performance on 9 June 1804; but the version played incorporates Beethoven’s revisions for the first public performance at the Theater an der Wein on 7 April 1805. So why not record in that location which is today an opera house? Perhaps recording under the Palais Lobkowitz’s early 18th century high ceiling fresco was irresistible. Care has been taken to use the number of players appropriate to the setting. A letter by Beethoven from 1813 to Archduke Rudolph is quoted, “I want at least four violins – four seconds, four firsts – two double basses and two cellos”. But this is a minimum number. And does it take into account the quite reverberant acoustic of the Hall which gives a pleasing glow to the wind instruments but allows the timpani to be booming?

The treatment of the Eroica’s famous two opening chords sets the tone. From Martin Haselböck they’re weighty, gruff, a touch lethargic. From the period instrument recording I’m using as a comparison, made by Le Concert des Nations/Jordi Savall in 1994 (Alia Vox AVSA9916) they’re incisive and dynamic. Come the first theme, Haselböck is more smoothly melodious, his orchestra’s woodwind playing throughout more beauteous than Savall’s, but where Haselböck offers a pleasing fluency, timing the first movement at 17:39, Savall at 15:23 gives us a more vital momentum and continuity of argument. The five repeated chords towards the end of the exposition are from Haselböck weighty blasts but from Savall a bright, emphatic celebration. In the development from 6:52 there are two passages of triple layering: the wind pounding repeated notes, first violins declaiming the second element of the second theme (first heard at 1:15), cellos and basses giving out the opening theme. All are marked ff but in the Eroica Hall acoustic and with the relatively small string forces the wind swamp the rest. Savall, with 32 strings in comparison with Haselböck's 14, reveals the triple layering more clearly. Similarly, in the coda when the first violins' counterpoint from 16:15 adds decoration to the theme in the first horn, their small numbers lack Savall's charm and feathery delicacy. Some features in Haselböck's account are well presented, like the discordant layering of third horns and strings over first and second horns and the other wind at the climax of the development at 8:47 and the well sprung striding bass creating an expectant and exciting progression from 10:08; yet Savall's exultation at the close of the movement eludes Haselböck.

In the hero's funeral slow movement Haselböck's smaller body of strings points up its more personal moments such as the two cellos with their brief espressivo passage (tr. 2, 1:25). Haselböck contrasts well the compassionate sorrow of dignified melody and dramatic pointing of military formality, though the sudden wind cry at 3:11 is more powerful and stark from Savall. Haselböck's section in C major (3:40), albeit not as sunny and skipping as Savall's, flows freely and with its resplendent, sonorous tuttis recalls all the glory and happiness of the hero's heyday, rendering the return to the funeral all the more sorrowful, though Savall is more desolate here.

In the Scherzo a new hero takes up the reins. Haselböck makes it appropriately nifty and dancing but Savall is more magical because the strings start really pianissimo and the flute tune is articulated piano above this. With Haselböck everything is more or less piano. Haselböck excels in the really buoyant 3 horns in the Trio. The finale is a rip-roaring affirmation of the heroic ideal in 9 variations. Its rather stealthy theme in the bass from Haselböck is really only the accompaniment to the theme which joyously appears in Variation 3 (tr. 4, 1:57) after a first variation (0:47) of clarity of texture and a second (1:21) of a more determined animation. Variation 4 (2:42) finds Haselböck resolutely exploring a fugue while Variation 5 (3:38) is vivacious, thanks to nimble playing from the first flute. Variation 6 (4:13) is a rugged gypsy dance. Variation 7 (5:00) includes another fugue but Haselböck keeps the texture luminous. Variation 8 (6:36) is a glowing, affectionate realization of the hero's theme, followed by noble treatment of it by the first horn in Variation 9 (8:21). The greater spaciousness of Haselböck's final two variations is more emotively telling than Savall's swifter account; but Savall is more stylish and brings more momentum to the earlier variations.

Sharing its prevailing optimism, the Septet makes an attractive coupling, though it received its first public performance in Vienna's Burgtheater. As this building still stands, as an opera house, I wondered why the work wasn't recorded there, maybe because it's had two major rebuilds since 1800? The Palais Lobkowitz ensures sonorous tuttis and generally an alfresco feel. There are no other recordings currently available on period instruments, so for comparison I chose the modern instruments of Ensemble 360 (Nimbus NI 6112) recorded in 2007 in Potton Hall. In the work's introduction they bring better dynamic contrast and more delicacy to the semiquaver and demisemiquaver descents, but in the main body Allegro con brio the soloists of the Wiener Akademie find a more companionable swing. Two types of joy are evident from both recordings: the effusive and quietly relished. OWA incline to the former, yet the violin's descents between the tutti punctuation are lightly thrown off, whereas in E360's generally more intimate, light-hearted account these descents are delivered with a flourish.

The slow movement is largely a lovely song dialogue between clarinet and violin, but other instruments have their moments of eloquent response: the bassoon at 1:28, demurely but nicely done by OWA's; at 3:57 a heartfelt, yet not overdone, OWA cello; at 4:45 a difficult horn solo from a sustained piano, then a crescendo to forte where the OWA player seems uncomfortable: here the E360 soloist is firmer and more secure. E360 phrase more flowingly and accept the movement as a charming, happy piece where OWA for me try to be more soul searching than it warrants.

The Minuet is given a fair swing by OWA, making it into a jolly, rumbustious piece while in the Trio the horn gleefully tumbles and the clarinet smoothly ascends. E360 are lighter, more deftly playful. In the fourth movement Theme and Variations OWA's approach is sprightly and works well. In Variation 1 (tr. 4, 0:59) the violin accompanies as the viola leads, then the cello. Variation 2 (1:55) showcases a florid transformation of the theme from violin. Variation 3 (2:57) finds bassoon and clarinet sharing the theme. Variation 4 (3:59) goes into the minor. OWA give full drama to the pained cries of clarinet and horn. Variation 5 (5:02) is settled and melodious. E360's approach is more intimate, homely and contented. Dominated by its horn calls, OWA's Scherzo is blowsy, uninhibited, even vulgar. In the Trio the cello introduces a kindlier jollity but the violin gatecrashes his party and smothers the poor guy. E360 are always well behaved. The cello in their Trio primly insists on Beethoven's accents, but the violin is here an equal, sympathetic partner, as is earlier the bassoon.

The finale is a merry Presto with a chirpy opening theme and forthright second theme (tr. 6, 1:34). In the development comes an ambling theme for wind trio to which the violin first makes decorative responses then ousts with a brilliant cadenza. OWA give an exuberant account but the lower strings need more definition as does the horn's climactic rising scale near the end (7:26). E360's account benefits from more dynamic contrast in the introduction and elsewhere more precise articulation.
Michael Greenhalgh
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