Philippe Herreweghe, Royal Flemish Philharmonic. PentaTone Classics PTC 5186 313.
It's doubtful that too many people will be buying this album exclusively to hear Beethoven's First Symphony. But if they do, they'll be getting one of the best performances of the work I've ever heard committed to disc. Philippe Herreweghe is no stranger to period interpretations, and he applies his knowledge of and experience with those practices to this modern-instruments version with the Royal Flemish Philharmonic. The First Symphony performance is vigorous and joyous, with only the second movement Andante cantabile taken at a pace that might seem a tad too zippy for the rest of the piece.
No, it's the Beethoven Third, the "Eroica," that most people will probably be interested in, and here, too, Herreweghe's reading will not disappoint. It's one of the most satisfying versions around, filling a void between the slower, grander, more traditional approaches of Klemperer, Bohm, Barbirolli, Jochum, and other old-timers and the brisker renditions of people like Norrington and Zinman. Herreweghe makes sure you know this is a groundbreaking piece of music, while at the same time invests it with a playful enthusiasm that will have your blood racing and your toes tapping. Even the usually staid Funeral March comes off with a charming pizzazz, the Scherzo with verve, and the Finale variations with a delightful vivacity.
PentaTone's sound for this 2007 recording is spacious and dynamic, not unusual given that they made it in Amsterdam's Concertgebouw, home to so many wonderfully airy, ambient recordings of the past. You won't find any ultimate transparency here, but you will find the sound of a real orchestra heard from a moderate distance, with plenty of breadth, depth, and resonant bloom. What's more, it's a hybrid SACD, so if you have the ability to play it back in multichannel, that will undoubtedly be a plus as well. I played it in regular two-channel stereo and in SACD stereo and found little sonic difference between the two. Both are excellent.