BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 3 in E-flat, “Eroica”; Coriolan Ov.– Le Concert des Nations / Jordi Savall – Alia Vox

BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 3 in E-flat, Op. 55, “Eroica”; Coriolan Overture, Op. 62 – Le Concert des Nations / Jordi Savall – Alia Vox multichannel SACD AVSA9916, 52:14 (4/29/16) *****:

Beethoven in wonderful, powerful overdrive: the finest original-instruments performance of the Eroica that I know.

I usually think of Jordi Savall only in connection with Baroque and before, a period that he and his original-instruments band do great justice to. But this recording from the Alia Vox archives shows that Savall has a full grasp of the Classical idiom and of Beethoven’s monumental Classical style. Savall’s achievement is, as always, the result of deeply informed scholarship, but more, he inspires his players with a real sense of the drama inherent in the music of the Napoleonic Era. The result is just about the most unrelentingly dramatic Eroica I’ve heard in many years and certainly my favorite original-instruments version of the piece.

Savall’s interpretation is fleet of foot, dynamic in the extreme. There’s a famous anecdote about the first time the symphony was performed. An audience member was supposed to have stood up and offered the conductor a thaler if he would “just make the damned thing stop.” Well, there’s no stopping Savall’s juggernaut Eroica, which is not to say his tempi are outré. Savall is faster in every movement than the conductors I have at my fingertips in my collection—Harnoncourt, Vänskä, Paavo Järvi, and Wojciech Rajski—but Osmo Vänskä is the only conductor Savall is markedly faster than. For example, Vänskä’s first movement clocks in at a sluggish 16:58 against Savall’s 15:23. (Interestingly, Günter Herbig and Herbert Kegel are both swifter than Savall in the first movement. As I might have expected, Toscanini is speedier in movements 1 and 3 and exactly matches Savall’s timing in the finale.) In sum, Savall’s performance doesn’t seem rushed; every nuance of Beethoven’s mighty architecture and potent scoring emerges with telling force. And the balances in Savall’s orchestra—just thirty-two string players against thirteen winds—means that winds, brass, and drums cut through the texture with the kind of power that they surely must have had in Beethoven’s day. In fact, the point is underscored in Savall’s own notes to the recording: the orchestras that first performed the Eroica comprised as few as thirty players total.

Savall also has something to say about tempi. With a bit of interpretive leeway here and there, he has tried to follow Beethoven’s tempo markings, which are fast, faster than most conductors are willing to hazard. But given that Savall’s choice of tempi produces dynamism without sacrifice of detail, the fidelity to Beethoven’s markings pays major dividends in this performance.

The Coriolan Overture has nothing to do with Shakespeare’s play Coriolanus. Instead, it was written as an introduction to a drama by Beethoven’s friend, Viennese playwright Heinrich Josef von Collin. It’s an intensely brooding work that mirrors the tragic action of the play: the betrayed and banished Coriolanus wages war against his own native city of Rome. The tender, melancholy second theme suggests the pleading of Coriolanus’ mother, who tries to turn her son away from violence to his own people. Again, Savall’s performance is impassioned, driving, searing in its intensity, simply the most memorable I’ve heard.

As I’ve come to expect in this series of previous releases remastered in SACD, the sound is impressively clean and clear even though the recording venue, the Collegiate of Cardona Castle in Barcelona, is quite resonant. Actually, the resonance helps to open up the sound, and the result is spacious and enveloping.

In short, even if you have a number of Eroicas on your shelves, you need to add Savall’s magisterial version to your collection!

—Lee Passarella

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