Album review: Resplendent Eroica from Les Siècles and François-Xavier Roth

Although it is impossible to quite imagine the colossal impact Ludwig van Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony must have had upon its listeners upon its 7 April 1805 premiere, the terrific new recording by Les Siècles and François-Xavier Roth does make the endeavour a lot easier. Their performance bears an aura of a first performance, both in terms of utmost intensity as well as astonishment and discovery.

For what as voyage into the unknown does the symphony make! Not only does Beethoven double the proportions from what was de rigeur set by Haydn and Mozart, expanding the symphony into an unprecedented fifty-five-minute affair, but, perhaps more notably, he takes a quantum leap in the emotional scope as well. Not until ninety years later would the symphonic mold be subjected into an equally fundamental rethink by Gustav Mahler in his Third Symphony (1893-96).

Composed, for the most part, between June and October 1803, with sketches dating back to the previous year, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, op. 55 is rooted both in the personal and the universal, bearing echoes of the composer’s inner struggles as well as commenting on the aftermath of the French Revolution. Thoroughly documented in myriad of literature, the genesis of Eroica hardly needs to be reviewed in detail, yet a few distinct remarks might still be in order.

Firstly, we must take heed on the personal. To put it frankly, with Eroica, Beethoven composed himself out of suicide. As documented in the Heiligenstadt Testament from 6 October 1802, the composer was devastated by his quickly deteriorating sense of hearing which was leading him into an artistic cul-de-sac. In the end, however, the musical dedication took over, and carried him over the next twenty-five years, resulting in a career of unparalleled artistic merit.

Secondly, there is the French connection. To what extent Beethoven’s music was political is open to debate, but in the case of Eroica, and subsequently the Fifth Symphony, the repercussions of the collision between the ideals and the realities of the French Revolution are inseparably woven into the composer’s symphonic thinking. Thus, the struggles and triumphs of Eroica are also manifestations of our shared European heritage, equally topical today as in 1803.

On a purely musical level, Eroica goes beyond anything conceived thus far. The opening movement alone exceeds the scope and scale of an entire Haydn symphony. Dispensing with the slow introduction, Beethoven throws in just two tutti chords, before plunging headlong into the allegro con brio. Over the movement’s extended sonata arch, musical developments of dazzling imagination unfold, taking the orchestra (and the audience!) on a journey of a lifetime.

On their new recording, Roth and Les Siècles give the first movement a resplendent outing. After resounding the two giant sonic pillars with enormous sonic depth and cascade of symphonic colour, the orchestra embarks upon a breathtaking adventure. Making full use of their period-instrument potential, the players and Roth take nothing for granted. With each phrase charged with kinetic energy and profound significance, the sonic architecture unfolds with mastery of drama and proportion, ever expecting the unexpected.

Les Siècles and François-Xavier Roth in rehearsal. © Holger Talinski

In similar vein, nothing is played safe in the marcia funebre. Instead, the second movement is conceived as a dramatic scena of almost cinematic vividness. A gorgeous study of symphonic darkness, the marcia funebre is shrouded with astounding colours, emerging from the magnificent period-instrument textures. Holding true to Beethoven’s text, Roth and Les Siècles do not linger, but provide a compelling realization of the ardent musical process involved.

The scherzo kicks in with an abrupt change in mood and shape. A pulsating staccato opening from the strings establishes the allegro vivace main tempo, providing the airy winds of Les Siècles their moment to shine. In the trio, some extraordinary horn bravura is heard, before the orchestra picks up the scherzo da capo. Beautifully paced by Roth, the third movement is ideally shaped, resulting in joyful music-making.

The elated spirit carries over to the finale, where chamber-like textures and symphonic mass are joined in the whirlwind of fugal textures. Clad in translucence without compromising the sonic weight, the closing movement is a feast of orchestral playing. With Roth on the podium, the members of Les Siècles endorse Beethoven’s writing with all their craft and dedication, giving rise to an absolutely unforgettable performance.

An outing of colossal significance, the recording of Eroica by Roth and Les Siècles makes a worthy companion to their earth-shaking account of the Fifth Symphony released last year. Recorded in pre- and post-lockdown sessions in March and September 2020, the album account is marvellously engineered, awash with colour and translucent detail.

As a riveting bonus, the life-affirming Eroica is coupled with a splendid performance of Étienne Méhul’s overture from Les amazones, ou La fondation de Thèbes (1811), a three-act opera symbolizing the peace between France and Austria, first performed with Emperor Napoleon in the audience. A key figure in the French musical scene of the years of Revolution, Méhul’s musical style is perhaps quite different from Beethoven’s. Still, the two composers make a wonderful pairing, as two originals par excellence.

The overture opens with a slow introduction with massive tutti chords altering between anguished melodic lines, broken up by horn-calls. The bleak soundscape is then contrasted by more radiant colours in the strings, as the music begins to break free from its troubled roots. A fully-fledged orchestral workout ensues, eventually bursting into glorious tour-de-force in symphonic sound.

A brilliant performance from Les Siècles and Roth, the Méhul overture brings the album to a ravishing close. With this disc in mind, one looks forward to their future forays with joyful anticipation.

Les Siècles

François-Xavier Roth, conductor

Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 55 ”Eroica” (1802-04)

Étienne Méhul: Overture from ”Les amazones, ou La fondation de Thèbes” (1811)

Recorded at MC2, Grenoble, Théâtre municipal de Tourcoing and Maison de l’ONDIF, Alfortville on March and September 2020 (Beethoven) and La Seine Musicale , Boulogne-Billancourt on February 2020 (Méhul)

Harmonia Mundi HMM 902421 (2021), 1 CD

© Jari Kallio

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