Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 "Eroica" (CD review)

Also, An Elizabethan Suite. Sir John Barbirolli, BBC Symphony Orchestra. Dutton Laboratories CDSJB 1008.

I did not get to hear this recording when EMI first released it in 1967, and by the time I heard good news about it in the mid seventies, the company was no longer issuing it. Then, Dutton Labs remastered it in 1997, and I finally got to hear it. I have to admit it is seldom I am so completely taken by a performance that I am willing to recommend it as a top choice, but after several listening sessions with Sir John Barbirolli's Beethoven Third, I am inclined to do so.

Seldom do I remember just when, where, or how I first learned about a particular recording. Most of the time, it's something a record company has sent me for review. But when something like Barbirolli's BBC recording of Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony found its way into my collection, it was a different story, and I recall exactly the way it came about. I read about it in a 1973 book I still own titled 101 Masterpieces of Music and Their Composers by the announcer, commentator, and author Martin Bookspan (b. 1926). In the book, Bookspan comments on various pieces of classical music and makes recommendations for specific recordings. For the Beethoven Third, he wrote, "...my own favorites among the many 'Eroica' recordings are the performances conducted by Barbirolli, Bernstein, and Schmidt-Isserstedt. Barbirolli's, in fact, is the finest 'Eroica' performance I have ever heard, on or off records; it is noble, visionary and truly heroic, with playing and recorded sound to match. The performance has lost none of its power and impact with the passage of time. If anything, its stature has grown as far as I'm concerned."

High praise, indeed, from a man who knew music well. But for a long time it was a recording hard to get a hold of. Thus, it was with open arms and welcome ears that I found it remastered by Dutton.

Barbirolli's performance is a marvel of sustained coherence, a noble, heroic vision from first to last. The opening movement is as exciting and energetic as any I have heard, in spite of its being a mite slower than some competing interpretations. The slow movement, the Funeral March, is more poignant than I have ever encountered. Thereafter, the Scherzo is as joyous and the Finale as high-spirited as anyone could want.

Sir John Barbirolli
Anyway, as you know, Beethoven wrote his Symphony No. 3 "Eroica" in 1804 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" of France, corrupting the ideals of the French Revolution, so the composer removed the man's name from the manuscript, inscribing it, instead, "to celebrate the memory of a great man." More important, the Third marked a turning point in Beethoven's artistic output with its daring length, range, and emotional commitment, marking something of a new beginning in the development of symphonic structure and prompting endless discussions among critics about what it all meant.

What it meant to Sir John, apparently, was something a bit kinder and gentler than it has meant to some other conductors. Barbirolli approached the work with a greater affection than many other conductors, offering up music of urgency and emotion, to be sure, but of resplendent love, stately nuances, and sublime caresses as well. It's not the kind of performance that sets the blood to boil, but it is a performance that is hard not to find appealing.

Take, for instance, those opening strokes that introduce us to Beethoven's vision of the emperor. With many conductors, the notes sound sharp and concise; with Barbirolli, they sound mellower, more resigned. It's as though the conductor wants us to know at the outset that this is going to be a more benign, more humane interpretation than you've probably heard before. The second-movement funeral march is more leisurely than most, too. Rather than bring out the stateliness of the music, Barbirolli chooses to bring out the beauty. By the time of the Scherzo, though, the conductor has picked up more steam and seems to want us to pay closer attention to details. Then we get a reasonably driving Finale, still not taken at a hectic pace but with a reassuringly triumphant conclusion.

So, Barbirolli's account of the symphony is more lyrical, more musical, more sensitive than we usually hear. Add to this a wonderfully alert response from the BBC Symphony, and you get possibly the most poetic account of the music you're likely to find. This was among the final recordings Barbirolli made, by the way, and it has an appropriately autumnal glow about it, with Sir John lingering over individual phrases as was his wont in later life. If the whole thing hasn't the tautness one cares for, well, that was his way. The performance is still well worth hearing.

The little "Elizabethan Suite," Barbirolli's own pastiche of various early seventeenth-century English tunes that accompanies the "Eroica," is icing on the cake.

Producer Ronald Kinloch Anderson and engineer Neville Boyling originally recorded the music for EMI at Studio No. 1, Abbey Road, London in May 1967. In the years since EMI released it, the recording has appeared in several different forms and formats from LP and tape to CD. As of this writing, one can not only obtain it from Dutton Laboratories, who remastered it in 1997, but also from HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers), who remastered it in 2017, and from Warner Classics, who reissued it in 2018.

The Dutton disc sounds quite good, and, in fact, for overall clarity it surpasses the newer HDTT product mentioned above. The sound has depth, breadth, and clarity in spades. It doesn't sound its age at all and outstrips many new digital efforts. That said, there is still an argument for the smoother, warmer sound from HDTT, which flatters Barbirolli's overall design. Both versions provide plenty of dynamic range and a fairly quiet background. I have yet to hear the newest incarnation on Warner, but I have not doubt it sounds good, too. In the end, it may be one's choice of price, availability, or playback format that determines which of the editions to buy. The main thing is that the performance is a gem.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa