Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 (HDCD review)

Hermann Scherchen, Vienna State Opera Orchestra. HDTT HDCD214.

If German conductor Hermann Scherchen (1891-1966) isn't as familiar a name to American audiences nowadays as so many other European musicians are, it's possibly because he didn't do a lot of recordings for major record companies, most of his output coming in the later part of his life for the Westminster label (such as this Beethoven disc). However, there can be no doubt he was an influential conductor of the twentieth century, his having championed a number of now-celebrated composers, like Alban Berg, Gustav Mahler, Max Reger, Richard Strauss, Edgard Varese, Anton Webern, and others. He apparently had quite a wide range of music in his repertoire, too, from the classics to the modernists, so it's good to have a few of his performances represented in the CD catalogue in such good sound as this one.

Beethoven originally wrote his Symphony No. 3 "Eroica" in honor of Napoleon Bonaparte, whom the composer greatly admired. However, just before Beethoven premiered the piece in 1805, he learned that Bonaparte had declared himself "Emperor," corrupting the ideals of the French Revolution, and he removed the man's name from the manuscript, inscribing it, instead, "to celebrate the memory of a great man." Whatever, the Third marked a turning point in Beethoven's artistic output, and to an extent in the world's symphonic output, with its daring length, range, and emotional commitment.

Scherchen's realization of the symphony is one of the more controversial in the catalogue. He surely isn't afraid to emphasize the symphony's passions. Indeed, he begins by taking Beethoven at his word, the opening movement proceeding in maybe the quickest tempo ever recorded, making it not only more energetic than most of the competition but more stimulating as well. It's all the more remarkable for Scherchen's having recorded it in 1958, at a time when most conductors were following long-held traditions of slow, measured beats. Scherchen's tempos are more along the lines of Roger Norrington's in his period-instruments recording and possibly in keeping with Beethoven's own tempo markings (which some critics still question). You'll find no sentimentalizing here; Scherchen is all business, more intent on drumming up "Heroic" excitement than in romanticizing the piece in any way. Thus, the opening Allegro really does come "with brio," with vigor and vivacity as Beethoven indicates, and plenty of it, like Napoleon charging through Europe (or a bull in a china shop).

 After the rhythmic thrust of the first movement comes the slow section, the funeral march, which in some conductors' hands can be deadly dull and bring the whole affair to a standstill. Not here. Although Scherchen maintains the steady forward pace of a funeral procession, it comes with none of the solemn overtones of a dirge. In fact, it becomes more highly dramatic and invigorating as it goes along, again drumming up controversy in the process.

Beethoven's Scherzo is brief and to the point, and so is Scherchen. The music bursts forth, and I mean that literally, with abandon and creates quite a joyous celebration. Then, the Finale sweeps in triumphantly, capping off a most-exhilarating interpretation. OK, so the orchestra sometimes has trouble keeping up with the zesty speeds the conductor adopts, but it's a good ensemble and manages well enough.

Admittedly, some listeners will find Scherchen's approach to this music too rushed or too rigid (at least one critic called the interpretation "mad"), but it makes a fine contrast to other notable and more conventional recordings. For comparison, try Klemperer (EM), Barbirolli (EMI), Bohm (DG), Bernstein (Sony), Karajan (DG), Zinman (Arte Nova), Herreweghe (PentaTone), Walter (Sony), and the like.

As far as the sound goes, HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers) took this performance from a Westminster LP recorded in Vienna in 1958. The sonics display excellent clarity, body, and definition, with a wide stereo spread and ample dynamics. Indeed, the sound belies the recording's age by surpassing almost anything produced today. While the orchestral depth may not be quite as pronounced as I would have liked, the overall transparency and transient impact more than make up for it. Thanks to some judicious noise reduction, there is just the faintest degree of background hiss noticeable, hardly objectionable in any way.

No, I wouldn't suggest Scherchen's reading of the Third Symphony as a first choice in this material. It's a wonderful, wacky, wild ride, to be sure, but it's too problematic and too frenetic for easy listening. Still, no Beethoven fan should miss it, if only because it might just be closer than most other renditions to what Beethoven really had in mind.

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa