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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Metamorphosen, study for twenty-three solo strings, TRV 290 (1945) [28.43]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 3 in E Flat major, Op. 55 ‘Eroica’ (1804) [46.32]
Sinfonia Grange au Lac/Esa-Pekka Salonen
rec. live, July 2018, La Grange au Lac, Évian, France
ALPHA CLASSICS 544 [75.20]

This is the debut recording from Sinfonia Grange au Lac an orchestra formed especially in 2018 for the Rencontres Musicales d’Évian (Évian Musical Encounters) festival held annually in Évian-les-Bains, France. The festival orchestra draws its young players from leading European orchestras and performs Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3Eroica’. Established in 1976 the festival was developed by celebrated cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, its artistic director from 1985, and drew to a close in 2000 before being revived in 2014. Constructed in honour of Rostropovich, the concert hall La Grange au Lac (literally: the barn on the lake) is located in a forest by the spa town Évian close to Lake Geneva.

Richard Strauss completed his Metamorphosen, a study for 23 solo strings and a relatively late work, in 1945. One of Strauss’s most deeply felt works, it is a personal outpouring reflecting the destructive horrors of World War 2. Premièred in January 1946 in Zurich, the score is fundamentally a large-scale lament - an Adagio with a contrasting central section marked Agitato. Bleak and despondent, this profoundly melancholy music feels like a depiction of a world in ruins with meagre shafts of light shining through the anguish. Under the assured baton of Esa-Pekka Salonen, the festival orchestra plays impeccably, excelling in Strauss’s masterly, autumnal string writing, a product of his eighties. It’s a captivating and affecting performance of unquestionable sincerity. The 23 strings produce a sound that feels focused and penetrating, creating an unsettling sense of foreboding.

Strauss’ Metamorphosen is well represented on record and I tend to prefer the darker, more penetrating accounts. The weighty, dark intensity 1961 performance by Otto Klemperer and Philharmonia Orchestra recorded at the Kingsway Hall, London on EMI is of superior quality. In addition, I have high regard for the two separate, shadowy and deeply expressive recordings that Herbert von Karajan conducted  with Berliner Philharmoniker in 1969 in the Französische Kirche, St. Moritz and in 1980 in the Philharmonie, Berlin, both on Deutsche Grammophon. A more recent release that I’ve enjoyed is an absorbing live 2014 account from Staatskapelle Dresden under Christian Thielemann in the Semperoper, Dresden, on Profil.

For good reason, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3Eroica’ is an enduring favourite in the concert hall. It’s 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’. It was subsequently dedicated 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.

Make no mistake, this is an account with great beauty of sound and expressively moulded playing from the fifty-six strong Sinfonia Grange au Lac although this approach seems more appropriate to the ‘PastoralSymphony than the ‘Eroica’. Salonen doesn’t generate the heroic power and sense of defiance in the face of adversity of my favoured recordings. Vibrant and spirited, the opening movement Allegro con brio, played with such lightness of touch, benefits from an attractive sound. A rather uneven quality to the Marcia funebre makes it the least satisfyingly performed movement, making me want additional weight. Salonen is most impressive in the Scherzo which is well-paced, exhibiting surges of power and an attractive dance-like quality. There is a feeling of gravitas in the spirited Finale that displays character and a restrained power until it is released in the final Presto. Once again, as in the Trio, the first-class contribution of the horns is noticeable.

This recording is growing on me with repeated playings and is certainly one I will revisit, but it doesn’t supplant my established favourites of this masterwork. Owing to the substantial number of available recordings of the ‘Eroica’ I have narrowed my choice down to a small group of outstanding accounts, both acknowledged classics and recent releases. Otto Klemperer provides a commanding mono account with Philharmonia Orchestra, made in 1955 at Kingsway Hall, London, in the EMI ‘Great Recordings of the Century’ series. There is the glowing and powerful 1961 recording made in the Jesus Christus Kirche, Berlin account by the Berliner Philharmoniker under Karl Böhm on Deutsche Grammophon. In 1962, also in the 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 at Philharmonie, Berlin by the Berliner Philharmoniker under Sir Simon Rattle, part of his complete cycle of Beethoven symphonies on the orchestra’s own label. Recently released is a striking and beautifully played studio performance from Michael Sanderling conducting the Dresdner Philharmonie recorded in 2015 in the Lukaskirche, Dresden on Sony. This formed part of Sanderling’s ongoing parallel series of Beethoven and Shostakovich symphonies coupled together (c/w Shostakovich Tenth Symphony) and is now available as part of a complete Beethoven set. Worthy of attention is another continuing Beethoven symphony cycle from the Wiener Symphoniker under Philippe Jordan with a quite admirable 2017 account recorded live at Goldener Saal, Vienna on the orchestra’s own label (c/w Beethoven First Symphony). Of significant interest too is the live 2017 Heinz Hall, Pittsburgh account from Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra under Manfred Honeck on Reference Recordings SACD (c/w Richard Strauss First Horn Concerto).

La Grange au Lac is a predominantly wooden - pine and red cedar - concert hall with an aluminium shell ceiling designed by Patrick Bouchain and a small forest of silver birches surrounding the stage. This recording confirms the reputation of the concert hall as having a superb acoustic displaying crystal clear sound with satisfying presence and balance. There is virtually no extraneous noise in this live recording and any applause has been removed. Rémy Louis is the author of the informative booklet essay, ‘The Inaugural Concert of the Sinfonia Grange au Lac’.

Beautifully played and recorded, this album certainly whetted my appetite for future releases from Salonen at La Grange au Lac.
Michael Cookson

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