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Paavo Järvi's Beethoven: The Eroica for Our Age

First published in June of 2009

Ionarts' Choice Recording
available at Amazon
Lv.Beethoven, Symphonies 3 & 8,
P.Järvi / German Chamber Philharmonic Bremen

Good thing that art, and especially music, defies mundane economics. If recordings of Eroica Symphonies were cars, we’d speak of an oversaturation of the market, excess capacity, and the need to reduce the supply sharply back to healthy levels. Governments would be falling over themselves to promote their Symphony producers over foreign ones, or perhaps legislating that the Eroica is too big and time consuming a symphony anyway, and mandate that we all listen to Beethoven’s Symphony No.1, or Langgaard’s 15th and 16th, instead. Good thing it ain’t so… although that means missing out on the scrappage bonus where we would turn in our old, big bold Eroicas and get newer, leaner ones in return.

As it turns out, these new, leaner Eroicas are well worth getting . Happily, no scrappage bonus is required; we can get them and keep our Kleiber (Erich) and Kletzki and Böhm and even Bernstein. The lean one under review here isn’t all that new anymore and if I’ve been tardy in writing about it, it’s only because I wasn’t sure my words could do it justice. Meticulous cross-comparison ensued in trying to get it all right and in the end I had nothing but papers with scribbled bar numbers (music, not liquor), tempo comparisons, and exclamation points.

available at Amazon L.v.B, Sys 1 & 5, P.Järvi / Dt.ChPh Bremen

UK | DE | FR

available at Amazon L.v.B, Sys 2 & 6, P.Järvi / Dt.ChPh Bremen

UK | DE | FR

available at Amazon L.v.B, Sys 4 & 7, P.Järvi / Dt.ChPh Bremen

UK | DE | FR

available at Amazon L.v.B, Sy 9, P.Järvi / Dt.ChPh Bremen

UK | DE | FR

available at Amazon L.v.B, Overtures, P.Järvi / Dt.ChPh Bremen

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Appropriately I’m scrapping all ­that to simply say it how it is: Paavo Järvi’s disc with the Third Symphony of Beethoven (and a nearly equally zany Eighth) performed by the German Chamber Philharmonic of Bremen is stunning. One of those recordings that, after having listened to something like four dozen other Eroicas, you didn’t think would come along. If the phrase “blow your socks off” ever made sense, it does here. This is a brisk, bold, in your face performance. Järvi smacks the symphony onto your ears with a force that makes Osmo Vänskä’s take (BIS) sound almost tame. And my hitherto favorite Gardiner (Archiv|Cycle), the only one to take all the repeats and still clock in below Järvi (45:03 to 44:29), ends up sounding rather breezy, as if Gardiner didn’t really mean to speed. Using a 28-player string section (8-7-5-5-3), Järvi’s Chamber Orchestra sounds to be in complete control of the work, too, whereas Gardiner’s HIP forces (tuned lower by a half step, give or take a few Herz of wiggle-room) sound more authentically (if not necessarily more appropriately) challenged.

Comparisons are inevitable, especially with three more SACDs of the same symphony appearing in a short span of time and with approaches to the music that, at least superficially, are similar: Vänskä, Andrew Manze (Harmonia Mundi) and Philippe Herreweghe (Pentatone). But if you expect the same lean, Järviesque, violent tenacity from Manze or Herreweghe (perhaps amplified by their HIP gene), you are in for a surprise. If Järvi slaps, Manze and Herreweghe pat. And gently at that. Listened to after getting ready and riled with the Bremen band so bent on speed and creative mayhem, the gentleness comes as a sore disappointment, at least at first.

Taken on his own merits, Manze (50:24) excels especially in the pleading, soaring moments he builds from his rather lyrical approach. The fourth movement is worth the investment in Manze’s disc alone. [Aside, it’s very appropriately coupled with the “Creatures of Prometheus” ballet music finale, revolving around the same topic (Napoleon) and melody (used again in the Eroica’s finale).] The Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra with its 40 string players (11-10-7-7-5) makes as fine a noise as Herreweghe’s Royal Flemish Philharmonic (47:20), another modern, but historically informed orchestra (natural trumpets and timpani, but not, for example horns—and playing at 440Hz).

Somewhere at this point of the trajectory from Järvi towards bigger orchestras and more modest tempos, Vänskä comes in  whose cycle—foremost his genial Fourth— quickly became my new favorite as it was released. He, too, uses a considerably larger orchestra than Järvi. He consistently takes a little more time and uses it to punch a little harder than the Estonian Järvi. For those who want more meat on their Eroica-bones but still tight and tough excitement, Vänskä’s their man. Comparing the two would be like matching early Sugar Ray Leonard (Welterweight Järvi) against Michael Spinks or early Cassius Clay (Light heavyweight Vänskä). And, once we reach Vänskä, we might realize that the early Karajan (1963, DG) is right up there, tempo- and energy-wise. No wonder people were so astonished by Herbie
’s 1960’s Beethoven cycle. 

Thus working my way ‘backwards’ (mainly in terms of tempo, not just recording dates) from Järvi’s whirlwind performance, I could probably favorably acquaint myself with the (lovely, actually) Frans Brüggen Eroica (Philips|Cycle) which, though HIP, rivals not Gardiner but Barenboim in tempos (a shade under 50 minutes, but not including all repeats). It shows that you can wean yourself of the excitement that speed necessarily brings, but only gradually. That every version of this symphony has something offer isn’t too surprising: It’s too great a piece of music for any interpretation not to. Force me to name favorites among these here and I will yield Järvi ahead of Vänskä and then Manze, because ultimately it’s the excitement I crave most.

But since the Eroica-economy is not a zero sum game, I ask to be left dabbling happily in the multitudes, enjoying each one, depending on my mood. All of which goes to show that many ways lead to Rome. But only Järvi takes a motorcycle.

Paavo Järvi's recording of Symphonies 2 & 6 made the "Best of 2009 Almost" List.

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 3 in E flat major Op. 55 Eroica (1803) [45:03]
Symphony No. 8 in F minor Op. 93 (1812) [24:08]
German Chamber Philharmonic Bremen / Paavo Järvi
rec. August 2005, Bremen
RCA 713066 [79:11]

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