Beethoven: Symphony No 3, Etc / De Billy, Rso Wien
BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 3, “Eroica.” Egmont: Overture. Coriolan Overture • Bertrand de Billy, cond; Vienna RSO • OEHMS 621 (Multichannel hybrid SACD: 60:55)
Hard on the heels of the complete set of the Beethoven symphonies conducted by Stanislaw Skrowacszewski on Oehms comes this “Eroica” conducted by de Billy; there is no indication as to whether this disc heralds another such cycle. For my part, I hope that there is indeed more Beethoven forthcoming from this team.
The symphony’s first movement features a judiciously sprightly tempo that is exhilarating without sounding rushed. Antiphonal violins assist in clarifying Beethoven’s counterpoint within a production that is dominated by the strings. In a midhall perspective featuring a spacious soundstage, the sound is exemplary, with deep, resonant low tones and a pleasantly warm orchestral image; I detected no spotlighting or isolating of instrumental groups to unbalance the focus. There is crispness to the articulation of the phrasing and judicious usage of rubato that evokes the revolutionary nature of the music without becoming weighed down with self-importance on the one hand or being driven breathless by sheer propulsion on the other.
The second movement is sober rather than melancholy—a “stiff-upper-lip-in-adversity” kind of feeling. The violins have an intensity that borders on defiance as they progress through the thematic and tonal shifts in the aural landscape, somehow remaining buoyant until expiring at the end of the coda. The Scherzo embodies Michael Steinberg’s apt characterization, “mad coiled-spring energy.” The horns in the Trio are concise in their nobility, comfortably but not overly prominent in the mix.
De Billy’s sense of dynamics is flawless: Beethoven’s playful sudden punctuations in the finale sound as fresh as though we were hearing them for the first time—and that’s a good characterization of the performance as a whole. The variations again become endlessly fascinating—one marvels anew at Beethoven’s seemingly endless invention; the whirlwind conclusion is breathtaking while remaining coherent.
The performances of the overtures benefit from de Billy’s years in the opera house: each becomes a self-contained one-movement drama, driven by excitingly quick tempos (though not devoid of flexibility or sensitivity) and a commanding sense of scale. The entire program thus reflects Beethoven’s exploration of the heroic.
There are, of course, literally hundreds of alternative recordings of Beethoven’s Third, from historical to period-instrument versions, and even several featuring SACD sound; of this last group, two recent recordings conducted by Bernard Haitink and Osmo Vänskä were reviewed by James Reel in 30:2. My colleague found the Haitink to be “quite good,” while the Vänskä was “stunning.” If value for money is your main concern, the Haitink is slightly cheaper than either the Oehms or BIS discs, while the Vänskä contains the Eighth Symphony as a discmate, and thus gives you more music (Haitink includes Leonore No. 2). Granted the premise that one can never have too many good Beethoven symphony recordings, however, I heartily recommend this disc, even to those who possess the others mentioned above. Yes, it’s that good.
FANFARE: Christopher Abbot
Catalog Number: OC 621
Label: Oehms Classics
Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven
Conductor: Bertrand De Billy
Orchestra/Ensemble: Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra