Beethoven's Eroica – an anniversary mini-survey

 Napoleon Bonaparte (picture: Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy)Great ambition: the Eroica's original dedicatee, Napoleon Bonaparte (picture: Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy)

Beethoven’s Third Symphony, Eroica, was premiered on April 7, 1805. It remains among the greatest of all symphonies, pushing back boundaries not only of scale but also of ambition and expression. James Jolly suggests a clutch of Eroicas (throwing a few reluctant glances in the direction of Karajan, Sir Colin Davis and Günter Wand…).

VPO / Wilhelm Furtwängler (Various labels) Buy from Amazon

This 1944 performance, a studio recording, made in the Musikverein, is the one to have from the various alternatives (I think there are about nine!). It has a gravity and weight that’s not surprising given the wartime setting – if the performance has an emotional heart it’s the Funeral March, a creation of colossal intense but also of great beauty. But the entire symphony is glorious.

NBC SO / Arturo Toscanini (RCA) Buy from Amazon

Like Furtwängler’s numerous recordings of the core repertoire, there is a similar situation with Toscanini’s – the Eroica from his famous RCA ‘cycle’ demands to be heard, but if you can find a live 1939 broadcast performance you’ll be rewarded with a reading of even greater flexibility coupled with the expected high levels of tension.

Philharmonia Orchestra / Otto Klemperer (EMI) Buy from Amazon

As if hewn from a single massive block of marble, Klemperer presents an Eroica that squares up to Beethoven’s far-reaching vision. One of Klemperer’s greatest recordings and a shattering, cumulative experience that can’t but fail to leave you moved and changed.

CBS Symphony Orchestra / Bruno Walter (Sony Classical) Buy from Amazon

Every Walter performance is worth listening to: his humility, gentleness and quiet warmth produced total commitment from his players and this Eroica offers a kind of slow-burn excitement. There is a grace and elegance to the playing, and while it may lack overt excitement it is a hugely satisfying performance.

Cleveland Orchestra / George Szell (Sony Classical) Buy from Amazon

Szell takes quite a swift approach to the work and, as always with his Cleveland Orchestra, draws astounding playing from this crack ensemble, one that still betrays Szell’s perfectionist ethos. Another reading that tells you so kuch about this score.

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Karl Böhm (DG) 

Not from the Beethoven cycle that Böhm made with the VPO but a one-off from 1962 (interestingly quite close to Karajan’s first stereo cycle with the same orchestra). This is a wonderfully satisfying performance – less obviously dramatic than some but drawing a soulful lyricism from this extraordinary score.

 Los Angeles PO / Carlo Maria Giulini (DG) Buy from Amazon

I remember hearing Giulini and the LAPO play the Eroica at London’s Festival Hall back in 1980, and being stunned by the immensity of the first movement (with a pretty steady tempo, Giulini also takes the repeat making it 20’30” long). The experience was of a work conscious of its place in renewing a musical tradition.

Orchestra of the 18th Century / Frans Brüggen (Philips) Buy from Amazon

The first recording of the work on period instruments that had the impact of traditional reading without the feeling of having to make any stylstic points. This is a great performance regardless of its approach.

London Classical Players / Sir Roger Norrington (EMI/Virgin Classics) Buy from Amazon

A rather genial performance that will surprise for some of its tempo decisions – the first two movements are amazingly fast! This reading doesn’t seek to scale the heavens but has a much more benign gait.

Le Concert des Nations / Jordi Savall (Auvidis) Buy from Amazon

Unusual repertoire for Savall perhaps but he delivers a performance full of thrilling perceptions and some amazing sounds. Definitely one to sample.

Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique / Sir John Eliot Gardiner (Archiv) Buy from Amazon

Another superb period-instrument recording. Gardiner brings his vast theatrical experience to bear on this great score – it has the inexorable build-up of a ‘rescue opera’ and maintains very high levels of energy and power.

Chamber Orchestra of Europe / Nikolaus Harnoncourt (Teldec) Buy from Amazon

From the Gramophone Award-winning cycle, Harnoncourt’s marries period-instrument sensibilities with the youthful enthusiasm of the fabulous Chamber Orchestra of Europe – you feel that players and conductor are discovering this music together and it has a freshness that’s wholly winning.

Tonhalle Orchestra / David Zinman (Arte Nova) Buy from Amazon

Part of a cycle that marries an awareness of period performance (though Zinman hadn’t actually conducted a period band at the time) with the power and warmth of modern instruments. The results are lithe, supple but by no means lacking in power. 

SCO / Sir Charles Mackerras (Hyperion) Buy from Amazon

Not surprising, but when Hyperion decided to add a Beethoven symphony cycle to its catalogue – and the Nine aren’t an obvious addition – the performances were going to be something rather special. Mackerras brings a lifetime of experience to bear on this great symphony and manages to blend freshness with tradition (albeit on modern instruments with period brass) and injects drama aplenty into the Eroica.

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© MA Business and Leisure Ltd. 2018