Salonen’s Puzzling Eroica

Review by: Jed Distler


Artistic Quality: 6

Sound Quality: 7

It’s a cliché to label small-scaled, chamber-dimensioned, period-performance-informed recordings of the Eroica as “Beethoven-lite”. But that’s exactly what Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Sinfonia Grange au Lac deliver. Dynamics are alternately flattened out (the pluperfect yet under-dramatized first-movement tutti hemiolas) or exaggerated (the mannered swelling of crescendos and diminuendos, the mincing fermatas in the fourth-movement variations). The orchestra thrives on first-desk strength; sample the oboist’s prodigious lung power in the Funeral March, the bassoonist’s rhythmic acumen in the first-movement development, or how the horn section achieves lithe unanimity without slowing down in the Scherzo’s Trio. On the other hand, rapid string figurations are not consistently precise, even when the conductor adjusts the tempo in pursuit of ensemble comfort.

The main problem, to my ears, concerns Salonen’s fascination with details in the abstract, at the expense of the big picture. A key example of what I mean can be found in the Funeral March’s Fughetta. Yes, the timpani parts cut through the texture with shattering impact, but why does Salonen lay heavily on the accompaniment’s steady stream of staccato 16th notes, weighing down rather than supporting the relatively slower-moving fugal lines? As a result, the music gets stuck in the mud instead of generating power and momentum via, say, the Harnoncourt/Chamber Orchestra of Europe’s better judged balances.

Nor does the present orchestra match the subtle delineation and tonal diversity heard in Salonen’s 1989 recording of Strauss’ Metamorphosen with the New Stockholm Chamber Orchestra, who more successfully sustain the conductor’s expansive tempos. Given Salonen’s stature and the high level of excellence he’s attained across a large and diverse discography, this puzzling release misses the mark. Not that it really matters, but Salonen omits the Eroica’s first-movement exposition repeat.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Beethoven: Harnoncourt (Warner Classics), Strauss: Karajan (DG digital version)

    Sinfonia Grange au Lac, Esa-Pekka Salonen

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