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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No.3 in E flat major Op.55 'Eroica' (1804) [46:32]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Metamorphosen AV 142 (1944-45) [28:43]
Sinfonia Grange au Lac/Esa-Pekka Salonen
rec. 2018, La Grange au Lac, Évian, France
ALPHA 544 [75:20]

The two works in this live concert programme are of course linked by the fact that in the final Adagio section of Metamorphosen Strauss quotes from the “Marcia funebre” of Beethoven’s Eroica. – a connection which you would think must surely have resulted the same coupling in other recordings or concerts, but apparently this is the first and a neat idea.

However, there are problems. The opening to Metamorphosen is sluggish, too closely recorded, and there are intonation and ensemble problems. This continues for some minutes and really doesn’t work; it is devoid of inner tension and momentum until matters pick up around seven or eight minutes into the work, when the sound gels, a new lusciousness kicks in and the performance is transformed. This makes it very much a performance of two…well, if not halves, at least sections and I enjoy very much more the intensity of the second compared with the torpor of the first.

It is slow in absolute terms – Furtwängler’s incandescent recording is fully over five minutes faster - but that’s not the issue; other very successful recordings such as those by Karajan, Klemperer and Richard Stamp with the Academy of London are nearly as slow but far more gripping. Sinopoli is even slower at 29 minutes but evinces a far surer grip over how he builds tension to an overwhelming climax. It is true that Karajan supplemented the strings with Strauss’ blessing but again, that is not the only reason why the playing here lacks body. My other favourite account by Ross Pople and the London Festival Orchestra presumably uses the original 23 string version but sounds as completely convincing. This latest recording from Salonen with a youthful orchestra has its merits but is not one to vie with those established classics.

The orchestra here in the Beethoven symphony comprises 51 young instrumentalists who are predominately French but includes artists from all over Europe. Playing traditional instruments, they make a surprisingly crisp, homogeneous sound given that they were brought together here for the first time. Salonen’s tempi are swift and driven, core tone is lean and vibrato is sparing, in a nod to “historically aware” practice. The Scherzo is lively and well-sprung, the finale is similarly lithe and sinewy, with some lovely horn and woodwind playing. This is essentially a period practice performance on modern instruments. No matter how many times you hear this music, its daring and challenge always strike the ear afresh and I appreciate the freshness and energy of this relatively small-scale account, which is engaging enough in its own right if ultimately short on heroic impact.

Ralph Moore

Previous review: Michael Cookson

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