May 2008

Beethoven - Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, "Eroica"; 12 Contradances; The Creatures of Prometheus--Finale
Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra, Andre Manze cond.
Harmonia Mundi HMU 807470
Format: Hybrid Multichannel SACD
Released: 2008

by Richard Freed

Musical Performance **1/2
Recording Quality ****1/2
Overall Enjoyment **1/2

Andrew Manze made his name as a violinist and as conductor of period-instrument groups in inspiriting performances of Baroque music. Now he is conductor of Sweden’s Helsingborg SO, with which he performed the Eroica in 11 US cities early this spring, just as this recording was issued. In both the recording and the concerts, he set out to make a new case for a well-established work which may have come to be taken for granted.

The Helsingborg orchestra’s full strength is only 58 players, but that’s about 20 more than Beethoven had for the Eroica’s premiere; there is really no lack of orchestral heft here, and there is a clarity of line which, together with Harmonia Mundi’s beautifully judged sonic frame, allows all the work’s elements to emerge in near-ideal balance. This is by no means a small-scale presentation; it is in fact an expansive one, with repeats taken and no attempt to take Beethoven’s metronome markings literally. The playing itself is always assured, with notable contributions from the horns and drums. And yet, for all the fine playing and impressive sound, this performance is not in any sense revelatory, and does not sustain or reward attention as the unforgettable ones recorded by Szell, Klemperer, Toscanini, Zinman, Gielen and various others continue to do.

The disc includes both of Beethoven’s earlier orchestral uses of the dance tune he glorified in the symphony’s finale -- an appropriate alternative to one of the shorter symphonies as companion piece, but these, too, are available in more persuasive presentations in which they are not burdened with didactic mission.