Symphonies – Nos 3, ‘Eroica’, & 4
Basle Chamber Orchestra / Giovanni Antonini Sony Classical 88697 19252-2 Buy from Amazon
It is rare nowadays, even in the daredevil world of period performance, to come across a reading of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony that makes this revolutionary piece seem new-minted. Here though is just such a performance. Giovanni Antonini has been mentioned in the same breath as Toscanini, which may seem odd given Antonini’s origins as a recorder and Baroque flute player and founder member of Il Giardino Armonico. Yet one can see how the comparison arose. The mix of drive and acumen is indeed extraordinary.
Not that the Maestro could, or would, have approved of Antonini’s megalomaniac account of the Fourth Symphony where tempi, always a notch faster than Toscanini’s own, are driven to extremes and where there is barely a cantabile in sight, even in the slow movement. This is the Fourth Symphony on a war-footing, brutal and unreflecting, with some odd sonorities to boot. The pianissimo timpani rolls, to whose care Beethoven entrusts the first movement’s most magical transitions, rattle like rain on a corrugated iron roof.
Period performers like to live dangerously. Even so, it is difficult to reconcile the conductor who so brutalises the Fourth Symphony with the sure-footed interpreter of the Eroica. Here is a musician who understands the Eroica from within, dramatically, logistically and imaginatively. A musician, moreover, who can project that understanding into an orchestral performance that glows white in the furnace. The Marcia funebre is particularly fine with a characteristically forward-moving pulse, finely chiselled phrasing and strikingly ‘French’ sonorities.
Symphony No 3, ‘Eroica’. Overtures – Leonore Nos 1 & 2
Philharmonia Orchestra / Otto Klemperer EMI Great Recordings of the Century mono 567740-2 (76‘ · ADD). Recorded 1954-55 Buy from Amazon
In 1955 the Philharmonia Orchestra was at the peak of its powers. And what cogency there is sustaining and feeding the drama. Where other orchestras and conductors whip themselves into a terrible lather at the start of the finale, Klemperer and the Philharmonia sail majestically on. This is a great performance, steady yet purposeful, with textures that seem hewn out of granite. There’s no exposition repeat, and the trumpets blaze out illicitly in the first movement coda, but this is still one of the great Eroicas on record. As Karajan announced to Klemperer after flying in to a concert performance around this time: ‘I have come only to thank you, and say that I hope I shall live to conduct the Funeral March as well as you have done’. In the Leonore Overtures, recorded in 1954, the playing is a bit more rough-edged.