alan little’s weblog


10th October 2004 permanent link

Brian Micklethwait thinks obsessive classical record collectors are “mad, sad bastards” and life is too short to spend his online time hanging out with them. He may be right. But some of them are mad, sad bastards with encyclopaedic knowledge, and I know a lot less than Brian does about classical music, so I sometimes do find spending time in the newsgroup worthwhile when I’m wondering what direction my musical self-education should take next.

One such time was after I have accidentally discovered Wilhelm Furtwängler’s amazing 1944 recording of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the Eroica, on emusic. This was about the most intense, passionate performance I had ever heard of any piece of music but the sound quality of the recording was pretty bad. I wondered if there might be a recording with equally wonderful playing and decent sound [there isn’t]. So I searched for Eroica recommendations and discovered that if there is one piece of classical music the world doesn’t need another recording of, it’s the Eroica.

There’s a guy called Eric Grunin who has catalogued all the recordings of it. There are 368 of them. I’ve heard fourteen (now, a lot less then). It became apparent that the mad, sad bastards on r.m.c.r., most of whom have probably heard a lot more than fourteen, did have clear favourites. In all, about seventy – so almost a fifth of the entire number of extant recordings – were mentioned as a favourite by somebody at some point. The top 20 were:

Conductor/Orchestra Year Votes My comments
Scherchen/Vienna State Opera Orchestra 1958 17 A strong favourite among r.m.c.r regulars. (Kleiber, Klemperer and Furtwängler get more votes, but spread over different recordings). I have listened to it several times but I just don’t get it.

I’ve read that the “Vienna State Opera Orchestra” was the members of the Vienna Philharmonic moonlighting outside their official recording contract. I don’t know if this is true.
Klemperer/Philharmonia 1955 12 This is great in Klemperer’s very distinctive way – slow and majestic. But not ponderous. Absolutely not ponderous. A Klemperer fan (mad, sad bastard) jumped down my throat once for even saying the word “ponderous” in same sentence as Klemperer’s name, even though I wasn’t actually saying Klemperer was ponderous at all.
Erich Kleiber/Vienna Philharmonic 1955 12
Furtwängler/Vienna Philharmonic 1944 11 Easily my favourite. Despite its unsavoury provenance this is the version that anybody who loves the Eroica has to have heard. Unbelievable passion and intensity – although because of that, and the fact that the recorded sound is very poor, it’s not one to listen to every day.

How far was the Red Army from Vienna in December 1944? Probably not far. I can see how having Marshal Zhukov at the gates could cause people to play like the world was about to end
Monteux/Concertgebouw 1962 11
Bernstein/New York Philharmonic 1966 9 People talk about this having one of the most powerful Funeral Marches of any recording. The Funeral March is good, but the rest of it doesn’t do much for me.
von Karajan/Berlin Philharmonic 1962 9 Von Karajan was a vastly overrated conductor and a member of the Nazi party.
Szell/Cleveland 1957 9
Toscanini/NBC Symphony Orchestra 1953 9
Erich Kleiber/Concertgebouw 1950 7 Probably my favourite version with a decent-sounding recording.
Furtwängler/Vienna Philharmonic 1952 7 Furtwängler is responsible for far more than his fair share of the 368 recorded Eroicas. This one is his second most highly rated. I’ve listened to it a few times and didn’t find it remotely as impressive as the 1944 one.
Giulini/Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra 1982 People on were surprised that this was so popular. I haven’t heard it. My local discount CD shop regularly has cheap copies of it, but I have a moratorium on buying any more Eroicas on the grounds that I should broaden my horizons and listen to other things. (But see Toscanini)
Mengelberg/Concertgebouw 1940 7
Toscanini/NBC Symphony Orchestra 1939 7 Apparently, back in the days when these two giants still walked the earth, one either liked Furtwängler or Toscanini. (In order to confuse people who believe in national stereotypes …) Toscanini the Italian was Mr. Precision, this is what is written down so this is what must be played. Furtwängler the German was notorious for taking liberties with the written score for the sake of passionate, lyrical expression. I think they’re both great. I picked up Toscanini’s 1939 Eroica in a second hand shop recently – long after I decided to have a moratorium on buying any more Eroicas, but it was cheap and I have other things by him that I like a lot – and it’s great. Much better sound than the ’44 Furtwängler too.
Klemperer/Philharmonia 1960 6 Klemperer’s stereo recording is good, but not as good as his earlier attempt.
von Matacic/Czech Philharmonic 1959 6
Gardiner/Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique 1993 5
Jochum/Berlin Philharmonic 1954 5 Jochum was a great Bruckner conductor. I haven’t heard his Beethoven.
Savall/Le Concert des Nations 1994 5
Barbirolli/BBC Symphony Orchestra 1967 4

r.m.c.r discussion here.

I find the periods when these things were recorded interesting. All of the top three, and nine out of twenty in total, are from the 1950s. What was going on in the 1950s? Here’s what I think was going on: the last gasp of European High Romantic culture. These orchestras, and these conductors, were only one or two generations removed from the great flowering of European music at the end of the nineteenth century – Klemperer had been Mahler’s assistant; Furtwängler studied with a close friend of Wagner. European high culture committed suicide in the first half of the twentieth century; modernism was part of its suicide note. In the 1950s it was mortally wounded but not quite dead yet, and meanwhile recording technology had progressed to the point where it was possible to capture its last practitioners still in something like their prime, in sound quality that is still perfectly listenable-to by contemporary standards. The earlier top recordings, of which I’ve heard Toscanini and Furtwängler but not Mengelberg, are listenable to because of their astonishing qualities as performances, but you really do have to make allowances for the sound quality.

(Eric Raymond thinks classical music, the literary novel and painting were killed off as vital, relevant art forms by “deadly geniuses” – Schönberg, Joyce and Picasso – who deliberately took them away from conventional forms that were accessible to audiences and less talented practitioners, into rarefied places where hardly anybody could follow. It’s an interesting idea and I have more that I want to say about it; at this point I will just note that the moribund art forms he’s talking about are quintessentially European, and European culture as a whole was underoing some pretty serious upheavals round about the time when modernism came along. This does not, of course, apply to jazz; although American culture was also going through an unsettled spell round about the time Coltrane killed jazz.)

General consensus seems to be that the 60s, 70s and 80s really didn’t have much to add to what had already been done in the previous generation.

Things start to get interesting again in the 90s with the rise of period style performances trying to use using authentic circa-1805 instruments, performance practices and timings. Of these, Gardiner and Savall appear in the Top Twenty; Norrington’s performance with the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra is too new to have much of a following yet (2002), but also seems to be highly rated.

I have heard the Eroica properly, performed live, twice in my life. Once by the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester, and once a couple of weeks ago at a charity gig by a local amateur orchestra. I really enjoyed that one – they were playing their hearts out, and their conductor was pushing them right to, at times beyond, their technical limits in an attempt to produce a real performance and not just get them through the score without falling over. I admired him and them for that even if it did seem at times – the beginning of the finale – like it was all on the verge of going horribly wrong(*). Real people, really in a room in front of you struggling with the music, are almost always better than noise coming out of a box; and the Eroica is such great music it would be hard to ruin it completely (although I have heard a recording by Neville Marriner and the Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields that makes it sound dull, a quite astonishing achievement)

(*) I mentioned this to my sister, who is principal cello in an amateur orchestra. She says she prefers playing Malcolm Arnold to Beethoven for that very reason – the music’s good, but people don’t know how they expect it to sound so they can’t so easily spot where it all nearly goes off the rails.

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