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Wednesday November 01 2006

I am now listening to my nth CD recording of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony as n tends to infinity, this time picked up for fifty pence in Neil of Lower Marsh’s plastic crates, done by the Staatskapelle of Dresden conducted by Herbert Blomstedt.  How could I resist?  (The complete Blomstedt Beethoven symphony set has now been boxed together by Brilliant Classics.  I already have Nine in an earlier package.  Now I have the other eight, for a further expenditure of just two pounds.  Brilliant indeed.)

And once again, as I have been more and more recently, I am struck by how unrevolutionary the Eroica now sounds.  I realise that at the time it was first heard, they were all shocked, shocked.  How could you forget those two shocking, shocking bangs at the beginning?  But to modern ears, pounded by another two centuries of orchestral detonation, and by jazz and rock and roll, it sounds like Haydn with a mere dash of nineteenth century solemnity.

Hearing it played by modern symphony orchestras doesn’t always help.  These guys can play this music in their sleep, and sometimes it sounds as if they are.  Perfectly, but without any rebellion or anger or confusion.  A truly authentic performance, of the sort they would first have heard ought, of course, to be played at the same speed they played it, on the same instruments, but above all, as badly as they probably played it.  I suspect that introducing into the Eroica a sense of technical struggle might well make it sound far more shocking and effective.  Anyone reading this ever heard the Eroica played by, I don’t know, a school orchestra?  I can imagine the sheer effort of all trying to play the right notes, together, ending up being superbly effective.

By now Alan Little will already by composing a comment in praise of the Furtwangler 1944 recording.  He has a point.  Those old conductors were completely inauthentic, in that they played Beethoven like Bruckner, with vast string sections, often very slowly, and with lots of the musical equivalent of nineteenth century ham acting, yanking the tempo around something chronic.  But at least they managed to keep alive the sheer bloody impact of this music, for audiences more and more familiar with all the impact that Beethoven’s example had provoked from his successors.  The trouble with the cleaned-up, slimmed down Beethoven of nowadays is that it can sound like, well, too cleaned-up and slimmed down.  Like Haydn.  In his time, Haydn didn’t even sound like Haydn, if you get my drift.

Gardiner, Norrington and co, at least make Beethoven spark a bit by having the drummers and brass players play really loudly, compared to the strings.  (I particularly like Gardiner’s Missa Solemnis, from that point of view.) But a very recent performance, done by a regular symphony orchestra, tends to be influenced by the authenticists only by being cleaner, slimmer and duller.

Actually, much of the secret of listening to Beethoven is simply to have it on very loud.  I have just switched up this Dresden performance, and that makes it sound much better, in fact very good indeed.  There is enough in Blomstedt of the old-style ham to bring this music very much alive, and this recording dates from 1979, i.e. before the authenticists struck, and was made in East Germany.  Communism either smashed traditions completely, or else preserved them in tact, and in this case it preserved.  (It’s interesting that the reviewer linked to above (para one of this) also lists Barenboim’s set as a favourite.  I liked that set a lot also.  He too is something of a throwback, and worships Furtwangler.)

By the way, talking of loud bangs at the beginning, I also recommend Nielsen’s Third Symphony ("Sinfonia Expansiva"), which was obviously written with the Eroica very much in mind, because it begins with several similarly loud bangs.  My favourite recording of that is also by Herbert Blomstedt, on Decca, with the San Francisco Symphony.  That was one of the first CDs I ever owned, and I played it again and again.  Nielsen 4 (The “Inextinguishable") and Nielsen 5 are even more admired, but 3 is particularly fabulous, I think, especially that bang bang first movement.

I like to think that all that cartoons ruckus caused more people to listen to Nielsen, on account of him being Danish.  I now love Lurpak, even though I never used to.

And, talking of Alan Little, how about this?

Another example: last year I went to hear a local amateur orchestra perform the Eroica at a charity concert. It was great fun. They had hired a professional conductor, and he and they were clearly determined that they were damn well going to perform the thing, not just get through the score without falling apart. They damn near did fall apart, but I admired them and enjoyed the concert far more for that than if they had played it safe. The Eroica is so great it can survive a lot of abuse, and nobody was expecting them to be the Vienna Philharmonic. (On the other hand, what does it do to the Vienna Philharmonic, knowing that everybody is expecting them to be the Vienna Philharmonic? Does the pressure of all that expectation to be perfect stop them taking enough risks?)

That’s Alan Little, quoting his own email to Greg Sandow.  I definitely read that at the time, if only because, in addition to quoting himself, Alan also quoted me, saying, on Samizdata just over a year ago, rather better and among much else, most of what I have just said, again, here.  Bang bang.

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