Beethoven sym3 CCSSA46524SACD

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) 
Symphony No. 3 in E flat, Op. 55, Eroica (1803-4)
Coriolan Overture, Op. 62 (1807)
Budapest Festival Orchestra/Iván Fischer
rec. 2023, Rumbach Street Synagogue, Budapest, Hungary
Channel Classics CCSSA46524 SACD [60]

Today we enjoy the Eroica Symphony as a noisy piece, but I like it that Iván Fischer treats it differently. Just his abrasive opening two chords are a momentary spur to the cellos’ phrase starting the first theme that the first violins (tr. 1, 0:12) answer and stylishly round off. The many sforzandos in the following tutti are simply a thrusting device, lightly applied by Fischer, preparing for the first theme’s triumphant blaze. Then we get the second theme’s falling motif (0:56), passing from flute to first violins to oboe to clarinet, from Fischer an ideal state of euphony. The second part of that theme is a relaxation of seven repeated crotchets in the woodwind (1:45) yielding to the violins’ quaver thrusts, then more tutti sforzandos culminating in five straight crotchet repeats interspersed with crotchet rests. Again, Fischer treats these lightly, the heroic here being confidence in proportionate force. The development (6:43) returns to the second theme for comfort while the first theme broods as if under threat. Repeated chords in the wind explicate this (7:07) and the soft first theme in the string bass seems under siege. The tutti sforzando chords become a heroic tussle but help comes with a third theme on flutes and oboes (9:16) which reinvigorates the first theme while Fischer shows how crucial the support of the trumpets’ repeated notes in octaves (9:41), allowing further relief through the third theme, beguilingly presented by Fischer before the final thrust, signalled by a daringly true pp entry from second horn of the first theme opening (11:37) and then airy expatiation of the recapitulation. The coda (15:09) brings another phase: counterpoint effectively simultaneous variation of the first theme, charming when the first violins counterpoint the horns’ theme (16:44). Contrast that with the excitement stirred up by the trumpets’ triplets (17:04). Fischer is clear and assured throughout.

I compare this with the Britten Sinfonia/Thomas Adès. recorded 2017 (review), its timing at 15:07, considerably more Allegro con brio than Fischer’s 18:01, but I enjoy Fischer’s savouring of the more relaxed, often woodwind elements. Adès brings to it a composer’s urgency and the joy of communicating. Adès treats those successive sf chords and silences with more rigour, but the silences are part of the excitement. Nor does he miss the charm, as in the sf of first violins’ opening phrase, though Fischer gives this more glow.

The second movement honours a heroic death: solemn, mournful C minor; also emotive, personal grief. Fischer’s attention to dynamic contrasts clarifies the tension: softness on the brink of, then periodically, crying out. The C major central section (tr. 2, 4:46) postulates a heavenly reward with great ff climax. Then comes the earthbound reality of a continuing sotto voce funeral march stiffened by the arrival of a rigorous fugue (7:37). Is Fischer too slow here? The movement is marked Adagio assai and Fischer gives us a harrowing witness – one albeit mitigated by the ff third horn belief in ultimate reward (8:46). The coda is all stillness and muffled sobbing. 

Timing at 13:36 to Fischer’s 16:20, Adès’ swifter approach creates a distanced, though respectful, manner. Adès impresses in his suddenly more relaxed and luminous C major section and the passionate endeavour of his fugue. He effectively leaves eloquently expressive sorrow to the coda.

The Allegro vivace Scherzo depicts the reforming of the fresh pulse of life; from Fischer we hear exhilarating flutes and oboes above a soft but excited murmuring of strings. His electrifying tutti shows everyone ready to make whoopee. The Trio flaunts three horns of beaming roundedness and in its second strain (tr. 3, 3:06) a glowing woodwind quintet. In the coda, all seem to fly off hunting.

Adès’ opening is even more soft and exhilarating, with cheekier flutes, but his tutti is less fulsome. He is still jubilant but within a quieter environment.

The variations finale is from Fischer a joyous celebration. The introduction sets the pattern: ff splash, then soft pizzicato core of the theme, intermittent toying between tension and release. Variation 1 (0:33) is gentle theme decoration from the first violins, Variation 2 (1:31) finds their theme hovering above the other strings, Variation 3 (2:08) the first full expression of the theme in the woodwind, Variation 4 (2:56) a fugal treatment, Variation 5 (4:33) the theme in the minor, for Fischer no more serious than his smiling rigour in the fugue. Variation 6 (5:20) is a kaleidoscopic recapitulation: the theme facing more treatment in the minor and contrapuntal elaboration before a fanfare-like version of its head dominates. Variation 7 (7:00), Poco Andante, is a loving, longing. Variation 8 (8:37) is grand yet increasingly embattled until rescued by the ff Presto coda (11:01) and full throttle celebration, though the late, terrific timpani solo should overpower not just at 11:38 but to 11:41.

Adès, timing at 10:06 against Fischer’s 12:00, gives us a truer Allegro molto and more marked dynamic contrasts. Both are fresh in Variation 3 but Adès more spirited, his Variation 4 fugato neater, less cerebral, his Variation 6 racier. His Variation 7 gets creamily gorgeous playing; but there’s more intimacy and affection from Fischer, whose horns in Variation 8 have a warmer glow and violins’ Viennese waltz reference (from 8:27) a lighter touch. Adès’ timpanist terrifies (9:48-51). Overall, Fischer and Adès are equally historically informed and sensitive, but with different emphases. 

To the Coriolan Overture Fischer brings a stark, steely opening of ff tutti chords punctuated by silences, just like a battle furore contrasted with the rustling strings’ motif, an ever-present heart pounding. The second theme appeal of Coriolanus’ mother (tr. 5, 1:14) is smooth with a lifetime’s love before her son was banished and now fights for the enemy. The opening chords return, her son implacably resolved. Mum’s second appearance is more resilient, battling, then stops to return to the earlier, loving manner. Coriolanus’ chords gradually dissolve as he gives way, leaving a desolate coda (7:00), the strings’ motif sempre più piano now blended with vestiges of love collapsing to three pp Cs on pizzicato strings, silences between and all around. The story’s dilemma, discipline and emotion are purely and cleanly dissected by Fischer.

Michael Greenhalgh 

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