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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No 3 in E-flat major, Op 55 ‘Eroica' [46:53]
Étienne Nicolas MÉHUL (1763-1817)
Les Amazones, ou La Fondation de Thèbes - Overture [7:19]
Les Siècles /François-Xavier Roth
rec. March 2020, La MC2, Grenoble, September 2020, Théâtre municipal de Tourcoing and La Maison de l’ONDIF, Alfortville (Beethoven); September 2020, La Seine Musicale, Boulogne-Billancourt (Méhul)
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902421 [54:14]

Last year I was greatly impressed by a live account of Beethoven’s Fifth, recorded by François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles (review). Consequently, when I saw that the same team had set down the ‘Eroica’, I was very keen to hear it. As is almost invariably the case with a recording by Les Siècles, the Beethoven performance comes from concerts in several different venues which, I’m sure, have different acoustics. I don’t know how much editing has been done; suffice to say that such is the skill of the engineers the results are, to my ears, seamlessly consistent.

Roth’s performance gets off to a slightly disconcerting start. The two E-flat chords which call us to attention are spread. This is a device which I can’t recall hearing before and I went scurrying off to the various HIP recordings in my collection - Gardiner, Harnoncourt and Norrington – to check: none of them uses this gesture; all play the chords with the knife-edge attack we’re used to. As I say, it’s unusual to hear the chords played in this fashion – and, with perfect symmetry, the gesture is repeated at the very end of the movement – but I’m sure that Roth, being the thoughtful musician that he is, will have an historically grounded reason for playing the chords in this manner. In any case, even if the twin chords at the start and end of Beethoven’s gigantic first movement are disconcerting on this occasion, it’s what happens in between that really matters.

I deliberately refrained from reading the booklet notes before listening for the first time because I wanted to experience the performance fresh. When I turned to the booklet, I read that François-Xavier Roth likens the ‘Eroica’ to “a musical tsunami”. Though he was speaking of the work as a whole, the description fits perfectly his reading of the first movement. The performance, taken at a swift pace is lithe, taut and urgent; truly, it’s ‘con brio’. It’s noticeable how much emphasis is given to accents in order to impel the music, both rhythmically and expressively. Dynamic contrasts are also scrupulously and excitingly observed. Yet, despite copious attention to detail, the performance never sounds studied; on the contrary, it comes across as fresh and spontaneous. The left-right division of violins, which one takes for granted in a HIP performance (and in many modern instrument readings these days, thank goodness), makes a telling effect, not least because the disposition of the violins means that we hear the cellos and basses with exceptional clarity; that’s really welcome. The ensemble is superbly balanced by Roth and by the engineers so that we hear an abundance of inner detail. The detail doesn’t distract us from the overall thrust of the music, but it does mean we hear what’s going on internally; for instance, the importance of the horn parts to the inner workings of the orchestra is satisfyingly apparent. This superb, dramatic performance really demonstrates the revolutionary nature of Beethoven’s achievement; we are reminded afresh that with this movement he was hurling down the gauntlet of change to the world of the Classical symphony in a breath-takingly daring and original fashion. The dynamic realisation of the coda sets the seal on an exceptional performance of the first movement. This ‘Eroica’ is off to a thrilling start.

On Roth’s previous Beethoven CD, he included a work by a French contemporary of Beethoven, François-Joseph Gossec; he does the same here with a piece by Méhul. The link with revolutionary France is further emphasised in the booklet essay by Beate Angelika Kraus, in which she places the second movement of the ‘Eroica’ firmly in the tradition of late-eighteenth century French funeral marches. Roth’s account of Beethoven’s Marcia funebre is an arresting one. He continues the emphasis on accents which served his purpose so well in the first movement and there’s an important example of that early on. The hushed, sombre opening is disturbed at 0:21 by the strings’ playing an accent in an unusually sharp fashion. It’s a dramatic little gesture – repeated later in the movement – which compels the listener’s attention. Another feature of the first movement that’s carried over – again with entirely beneficial results – is a keen observance of dynamics. And, as in the first movement, the dynamics are carefully terraced, so that there’s no doubt when one is hearing, say, a piano rather than a pianissimo, or a forte rather than a fortissimo. Roth paces the music very intelligently – the marking of Adagio assai is not taken as a cue for a tempo that is too slow, thereby imperilling momentum; without sacrificing solemnity, the music always moves forward with purpose - you could actually march at this speed. The dark drama of the music is tellingly projected and while all sections of the orchestra play their full part in this endeavour, the gruff, rock-solid foundations provided by the double basses are especially imposing. At the end of my notes on this movement I wrote “riveting performance in which nothing is taken for granted”.

The Scherzo is wonderfully nimble and precise; once launched, the momentum never flags. In that context, one detail pleased me. When the horns start to play in the Trio, many conductors slow down for the first two notes of their little fanfare. Roth has no truck with such a rhetorical device and the Scherzo yields seamlessly to the Trio. Incidentally, the horn section of Les Siècles, collectively on top form throughout the symphony, really grab the spotlight in the Trio, as they should. After the Scherzo, the finale explodes into life, the movement taken attacca. The variations follow each other pell-mell in a sparkling performance. One detail that caught my ear was Roth’s decision to have one variation played by just a string quartet (1:21 - 1:50). I’ve never experienced this before but the extra textural variety is highly effective. The slow variations (5:49 – 9:51) are played eloquently and expressively; in this extended passage, when the full orchestra plays forte, the sound is truly heroic. The symphony’s coda, the horns in full cry, is absolutely thrilling.

This is a magnificent performance of ‘Eroica’. It’s one of the freshest and most ear-catching that I can recall hearing. It’s also revelatory in its detail. However, the exposition of detail is never for its own sake: rather, one has the distinct impression that every bar, every phrase of a great and oft-played symphony has been carefully considered by the musicians; it may be a very familiar piece but nothing has been taken for granted. This is a version of the ‘Eroica’ that you must hear.

The other work on the disc is Méhul’s overture to his opera Les Amazones, ou La Fondation de Thèbes (1811). The opera was written as a contribution to the celebrations of the marriage of the Emperor Napoleon and Marie-Louise of Austria. This piece was entirely new to me and I must say that I was fearful that it would be dwarfed by ‘Eroica’ – and all the more so after hearing this particular performance of the symphony. Such is not the case, however, though had it been my decision I would have placed Méhul’s overture before the symphony on the CD. The overture begins with a slow introduction, which is big and bold at first before we hear an impressively lyrical/heroic cello melody (1:51). That melody is made all the more interesting thanks to the lovely nutty sound produced by the cellists of Les Siècles. The introduction culminates in a powerful passage for the brass before the allegro is launched (3:24). From here to the end, the music is vigorous and Méhul’s writing displays no little energy. The overture is a good piece which I’m very glad to have heard. It was well worth including, especially since the animated performance it receives from Les Siècles is thrusting and expert. As in the symphony, I relished the fantastic orchestral sound and the range of colours. If, as I hope, Roth and his orchestra are going to continue to record Beethoven symphonies then I would be delighted if they also carried on with their exploration of contemporaneous French orchestral music.

I commented earlier that the performance of the symphony has been edited together from various concerts. In listening, I was not at all conscious of any changes: the sound is completely consistent. Moreover, the engineers present the orchestra in excellent, clear sound and the recording does full justice to the keen dynamic range that Roth and his musicians achieve.

Superbly played by the musicians of Les Siècles and compellingly conducted by François-Xavier Roth, this is an exceptional, dramatic and probing recording of the ‘Eroica’. I urge you to hear it.

John Quinn

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