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The excitement and wonder of hearing the Eroica for the first time remains a memory for me, but those feelings are by no means repeated every time I hear it now. It takes an exceptional performance to prevent a more comfortable feeling of familiarity taking over. I was expecting that this disc would have largely the interest of an historical curiosity and was amazed that right from the opening those original feelings of excitement and wonder returned. Throughout the performance I was gripped as I was so many years ago.

The anonymous arrangement heard here was published in 1807, after the publication in 1806 of a set of parts for the original version but before a full score had been published. As Peter Sheppard Skaerved observes in his fascinating booklet notes, it differs from the standard chamber arrangements of Beethoven’s symphonies by musicians such as Hummel and Kleinheinz in totally re-imagining the work for piano quartet. This is no mere hack job but a careful and imaginative re-working of the textures of the original. This preserves its spirit rather than simply using the piano to fill in for instruments otherwise missing or, as with Hummel’s arrangements, using the piano as a soloist with the others essentially as an accompaniment. As a result the listener hears the Symphony in a new way, wondering what will come next and often surprised by apparently new detail — which had been there all along in the background. Anyone unfamiliar with the original who was hearing this would not feel short-changed – the inner spirit of the original comes across better even than in some more routine orchestral performances, live or recorded.

I suspect that my enthusiasm may in part be due to the quality of the performance, which meets all the challenges of the scale of the work in an impressive fashion. Ally this with a well balanced and clear recording and the result is a disc which is worth having no matter how many versions you have of the original.

Recording of the Month

—John Sheppard