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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 3 in E Flat major, Op. 55 ‘Eroica’ (1804) [51.09]
Sächsischen Staatskapelle Dresden/Myung-Whun Chung
rec. live, 27-30 November 2004, Semperoper, Dresden, Germany
Edition Staatskapelle Dresden Volume 41
PROFIL PH15050 [51.09]

Conducted by Myung-Whun Chung, this live recording of Beethoven’s landmark Symphony No. 3 ‘Eroica’ is volume 41 of the Edition Staatskapelle Dresden, an alliance formed between the Staatskapelle Dresden, the radio broadcasting company MDR Figaro and Deutsches Rundfunkarchiv. Established in 2005, the partnership selects valuable, historic and also more recent recordings from the archives of MDR-Rundfunk, all released on the Profil Edition Günter Hänssler label.

First conducting the Staatskapelle Dresden in 2001, Myung-Whun Chung had the honour from 2012/2013 season of becoming the first principal guest conductor in its history. In November 2004, Chung conducted this live recording at the Semperoper, Dresden in the fourth series of symphony concerts given by the Dresden Staatskapelle in its 2004/2005 season.

For good reason, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 ‘Eroica’ is an enduring favourite in concert hall. It is well known that Beethoven originally dedicated the score to Napoleon Bonaparte before scratching out his name on the title page, replacing it with the title ‘Eroica’ and dedicating it to his patron Prince Franz Joseph von Lobkowitz. Completed in 1804, the score was written in the midst of the famous ‘Heiligenstädter Testament’, a letter Beethoven wrote to his brothers Carl and Johann in 1802 when contemplating suicide. The ‘Testament’ reflects the composer’s deep depressive state provoked by loss of hearing, and possibly exacerbated by a failed love affair. Beethoven introduced the ‘Eroica’ publicly in 1805 at the Theater an der Wien.

Chung recognises that this progressive score is music of considerable concentration and, as the designation might suggest, heroic power – it is a noble performance in which nothing feels routine. Especially commendable is the building of climaxes and the subtle realisation of phrasing and dynamics. Buoyant, virile and thrilling, the Staatskapelle in the opening movement Allegro con brio conveys a sense of defiance in the face of adversity, together with an uplifting sense of joyous anticipation. Underpinned by rich low strings, the angst-ridden and world-weary tread given to the renowned Marche funèbre is both resolute and entirely respectful. Checking this movement in over twenty recordings, which vary in length by over five minutes, I find that Chung’s tempi is somewhere in the middle. I relish his steady, reliable pacing and wide use of dynamics. Impressive, too, is Chung’s underlining of the recurrent divergence of sombreness with shafts of light. The degree of excitement that the Staatskapelle generates in the fresh, energetic and brilliant Scherzo is striking. The novel use in the trio section of three horns sounding like woodland hunt calls presages Weber’s Der Freischütz. Bold and exuberantly positive, with a near strutting character on the surface, it feels as if the spirit of life has broken free in the Finale, a theme and set of ten variations. Perceptively, Chung ensures that an undertow of melancholy is never far away.

Recording live in the renowned acoustic of Semperoper, the engineers have mastered the sound with impressive results; it has depth, a vivid clarity and a satisfying balance, coping splendidly with the broad dynamics. There is virtually no extraneous sound and a minute’s applause has been left in at the conclusion. I have adjusted the total timing to reflect the actual performance duration without the applause. On Profil, the documentation provided maintains the elevated high quality of the series, with credit going to Michael Ernst for his first-class booklet essays containing substantial information.

Owing to the large number of available recordings of ‘Eroica’ Symphony, I have narrowed my choice down to a small group of outstanding accounts, both acknowledged classics and more recent releases. This is an exceptional live recording from Chung which I place in the same elevated league. Otto Klemperer provides a commanding mono account with Philharmonia Orchestra made in 1955 at Kingsway Hall, London on EMI ‘Great Recordings of the Century’ series. There is the glowing and powerful 1961 Jesus Christus Kirche, Berlin account by Berliner Philharmoniker under Karl Böhm on Deutsche Grammophon. In 1962 also at Jesus Christus Kirche, Berlin Herbert von Karajan recorded a stylish and dramatic account on Deutsche Grammophon. Of more recent contributions to the catalogue there is the engaging live 2015 account in the Philharmonie, Berlin, by the Berliner Philharmoniker under Sir Simon Rattle, part of his complete cycle of Beethoven symphonies on the orchestra’s own label (review). Recently released is a striking and beautifully played performance from Michael Sanderling conducting the Dresdner Philharmonie recorded in 2015 at the Lukaskirche, Dresden on Sony. This formed part of Sanderling’s ongoing parallel series of Beethoven and Shostakovich symphonies coupled together (c/w Shostakovich Symphony No. 10) and is now available as a complete Beethoven set (review). Worthy of attention, too, is another continuing Beethoven symphony cycle from the Wiener Symphoniker under Philippe Jordan with a quite admirable 2017 account recorded live at the Goldener Saal, Vienna on the orchestra’s own label (review). Another recent recording of significant interest is the 2017 Heinz Hall, Pittsburgh account from Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra under Manfred Honeck on Reference Recordings SACD (review).

The Staatskapelle Dresden under Myung-Whun Chung give a compelling reading of the ‘Eroica’ Symphony, whose energy and drama make a considerable impact.

Michael Cookson



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