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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)
Overture Les Amazones, ou La Fondation de Thèbes [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]

François-Xavier Roth and his period-instrument orchestra Les Siècles mark Beethoven’s 250th anniversary with a recording of Symphony No 3 Eroica. The coupling is the overture Les Amazones, a fascinating, rather late, work of Beethoven’s close contemporary Étienne Méhul.

It is no surprise that Eroica, Beethoven’s defining composition, is an enduring favourite in both concert hall and on record. A landmark in the development of the symphony, it is regarded by many as the first Romantic symphony. Written in the aftermath of the French Revolution, it was inspired by its Enlightenment creed. (It is well known that Beethoven removed a dedication to Napoleon Bonaparte, and then inscribed the symphony to his patron Prince Lobkowitz.) It was completed in 1804 in the wake of the famous Heiligenstädter Testament, Beethoven’s 1802 letter to his brothers Carl and Johann. The letter conveys the composer’s deep depressive state, likely due to the loss of hearing and maybe exacerbated by a failed love affair; he even contemplated suicide.

Beethoven conducted the first public performance of the Eroica in 1805 at Theater an der Wien. Les Siècles use instruments from the period when a piece was written, as they do here. François-Xavier Roth leads a riveting performance. Nothing feels routine and there is much to relish: well-judged tempi, rewarding vitality and keen resolve. Roth’s interpretation might easily reflect Beethoven’s state of mind in anxiety-laden times. In the opening movement, tension and restless energy are contrasted with episodes of relative calm. In the captivating second movement Marcia funebre, the performance feels appropriately solemn, dignified and sincere. Thankfully, I hear no ill-considered sense of hopelessness or peril. Matters hot up in the uplifting third movement Scherzo, which abounds in a fresh-feeling exuberance. The spirited Finale ends like a rush of adrenaline.

I have never been too enthusiastic about the period-instrument recordings by such noted specialists of the early-music revival as Frans Brüggen, Christopher Hogwood, Roger Norrington and John Eliot Gardiner. But this Eroica is my pick of that field, worthy of sitting alongside my prized recordings on conventional instruments.

Otto Klemperer led large orchestral forces in a commanding ‘big-band Beethoven’ 1955 mono account with the Philharmonia Orchestra (recorded at Kingsway Hall in London and issued in EMI’s series Great Recordings of the Century series). Karl Böhm gave a glowing and powerful 1961 account with the Berliner Philharmoniker (recorded at Jesus Christus Kirche in Berlin and issued in Deutsche Grammophon’s series The Originals). Among Herbert von Karajan’s several recordings, I prefer a stylish and dramatic 1962 account (also recorded at Jesus Christus Kirche for Deutsche Grammophon).

A recent addition is a live 2015 account with the medium-size Berliner Philharmoniker under Sir Simon Rattle (at the Philharmonie in Berlin, part of their complete Beethoven symphony cycle on the orchestra’s label; review). Also in 2015, Michael Sanderling conducted the Dresdner Philharmonie at the Lukaskirche in Dresden in a striking, beautifully played studio performance. The recording is available on Sony, coupled with Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 (review), or as part of Sanderling’s complete set of Beethoven symphonies.

Only five years separate the premieres of Eroica and Étienne Méhul’s overture from the opera Les amazones, ou La fondation de Thèbes (The Amazons, or The Founding of Thebes). It was premiered in 1811 at Académie Impériale de Musique in Paris. Admired by Napoleon, Méhul was a leading French composer and one of the first to be regarded as a Romantic. An inveterate author of over thirty operas, Méhul wrote the Les amazones as part of the festivities in honour of Napoleon’s marriage to Marie Louise. This is a splendid performance. No need to acclaim it as a neglected jewel. It is a colourful, stirring piece that I am glad to have heard for the first time.

Les Siècles record their performances at more than one concert venue. The recording engineers did a fine job of combining individual acoustics into a consistent sound quality. The helpful booklet notes comprise an essay Composer colleagues by Beate Angelika Kraus, Méhul: Les amazones by Alexandre Dratwicki, and a short interview with François-Xavier Roth. This praiseworthy Les Siècles recording of the Eroica is a standout period-instrument performance.

Michael Cookson

Previous reviews: John Quinn ~ David McDade

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