Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 “Eroica” (CD review)

Also, overtures to The Creatures of Prometheus and Egmont. Gustavo Dudamel, Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela. DG 479 0250.

Three things surprised me about this recording of the Beethoven Third Symphony from Gustavo Dudamel. First, the boy wonder is no longer as young as I remembered him, being in his early thirties at the time he made this disc. Second, the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela has dropped the “Youth” from its title, apparently because the average age of its members has grown along with Dudamel’s. And, third, the youthful nervous energy I had heard Dudamel produce in earlier performances seems now replaced by a more concentrated, more focused joy and excitement. I liked this new rendition of the Third.

Beethoven completed his Symphony No. 3 “Eroica,” Op. 55, in 1804 and premiered it in 1805, observing something of a new beginning in the development of symphonic structure and still prompting endless discussions among critics about what it all means. Dudamel gives us a riveting, often scintillating interpretation of a warhorse that has already seen terrific readings from just about everyone. My own favorites include those by Otto Klemperer (EMI), Sir John Barbirolli (Dutton Lab), Karl Bohm (DG), Leonard Bernstein (Sony), Philippe Herreweghe (PentaTone), David Zinman (Arte Nova), Paavo Jarvi (Sony), Klaus Tennstedt (EMI), and even a cheerfully eccentric one from Hermann Scherchen (HDTT). Dudamel’s reading may not be quite as individual as these, but it’s in the running.

Without going all crazy on us with ultrafast speeds, Dudamel creates a vibrant yet appropriately grand, imposing vision in the opening Allegro con brio. Although the movement can occasionally exhibit some ferocious passages, under Dudamel it is consistently steady...and heady. The orchestra, maturing under Dudamel’s leadership over the years, sounds wonderfully nuanced, enthusiastic, and controlled, attacking each note with conviction and assurance.

The second-movement funeral march, sometimes the bane of conductors, doesn’t drag as much under Dudamel as it has under others, even though Dudamel takes it at a properly slow, funereal gait. It sounds dignified, almost classical in structure, with well-thought-out contrasts. Still, it’s a long time to maintain a steady tension, and not even Dudamel is entirely successful.

The conductor’s reading of the third movement Scherzo is fiery without being breathless or tiring. What it may lack in pure adrenaline rush it makes up for in its well-meaning spirit. Nevertheless, it was the one moment in the symphony that seemed ordinary to me.

Borrowing a tune from his Prometheus ballet, Beethoven wrote a finale that at once appears lightweight and gloriously triumphant. The conductor will have us hear the light, lyrical elements but emphasizes the more-weighty triumph above all. Dudamel’s Beethoven Third is perhaps not so unusually memorable as other renditions, yet it is a sensible, sincere, and distinguished account.

Lively realizations of Beethoven’s overtures to The Creatures of Prometheus and Egmont make a strong and entirely suitable coupling. Egmont is especially eloquent, forceful, and impressive.

The sound, recorded in Caracas, Centro de Accion Social por la Musica (Sala Simon Bolivar), in early 2012, is full, warm, and rich, never entirely transparent but nicely dynamic. There is a minor veiling of the midrange, thanks to a mild resonance, but it imparts to the music a realistic sense of hall ambience. While bass and treble extension could be a tad better, I’m not really complaining. The sonics are quite smooth and soothing and add considerably to one’s enjoyment of the music.

JJP

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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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Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa