This CD is well off my beaten track. I have never been a Beethoven fan and certainly cannot claim to have an in-depth understanding of his music. My limited knowledge of his work extends only to the concertos, the symphonies and the piano sonatas. Heretical as it may seem, I know virtually none of his chamber works. Again, I have never been a great enthusiast of transcriptions of orchestral music for piano or organ. The Liszt cycle of Beethoven’s symphonies arranged for piano leaves me cold. Now that I have ‘fessed up to my musical limitations (or snobbery), I must state that I was seriously impressed by this present arrangement of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony for piano quartet.
Devotees of Beethoven will know that the Third Symphony was composed in 1803 and was dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte, whom the composer erroneously believed espoused the democratic and anti-royalist values of ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’. To be fair to Beethoven, when Napoleon declared himself Emperor he had the good grace to tear the dedication from the top of the score. The Symphony was published in 1806. The chamber version duly appeared in 1807 as a piano quartet: apparently the composer had originally wanted editions for piano and for string quintet. Scholars are not sure whether Beethoven prepared the score for this version himself or whether it was an anonymous hand. The advertising blurb for this CD insists strongly that this is not the same piano quartet as that published by Ferdinand Ries, Beethoven’s secretary and pupil, some fifty years later.
I enjoyed this CD for two important reasons. Firstly, although I have an aversion to transcriptions of orchestral music, I do recognise the importance of these arrangements, especially to music-lovers who lived in the music era before recordings. In a nutshell, it was not possible to ship an entire symphony orchestra to the Duke of InverGeechy’s hunting-lodge in the wilds of Scotland, so the possibility of being able to hear the operatic, orchestral and symphonic repertoire was severely limited. However, it was not beyond possibility for pianists and small chamber groups to make the long and arduous journey and to give performances of these works in a more intimate and less costly manner. It was a market for which both composers and publishers catered.
Secondly I was impressed by the transparency of this music. I mentioned earlier that I was not an ‘expert’ on Beethoven, but I do know the orchestral Eroica well. The detail that this chamber version adds is revelatory: I found myself noticing shades of significance that I had not discovered in the original. In many ways, this recording is more than a mere transcription: it is a ‘masterful chamber work’ in its own right.
The liner-notes by Peter Sheppard Skærved provide a detailed historical study and an approachable musical analysis. There are also brief notes about the instrumentalists.
The playing on this CD is superb: meticulous, nuanced and controlled. This is a first performance of the Eroica in this particular incarnation, so we have nothing with which to compare it. Yet, my guess is that this is an ideal recording with the players working together to deliver what is truly a masterpiece. The next time I choose to listen to the Eroica Symphony, it may well be in this version.