A classical music blog by music critic Tim Mangan
A chronological survey of the first two chords of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony in recordings through the years.
Hat tip: The Rest is Noise
classical music, reviews
February 19, 2012
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Absolutely fascinating. The difference in pitch was quite startling. Also it’s interesting how some of the chords sounded like ending chords and some sounded like beginning chords.
As someone else pointed out (in an email), the differences in pitch may have something to do with the transfers of the recordings.
I find I like the ones that have a little more timpani sound in the chord.
Probably right about the recording transfers. But when we get the period instrument performances put right next to “modern” instrument performances, the difference is striking. Almost to the point where it doesn’t sound like an E-flat chord anymore.
Of all those, I thought the Mengelberg and Levine were the most arresting.
Yeah, the Levine is good.
I’d like to hear the Osmo Vanska and Jordi Savall recordings just based on the two chords alone.
I think Monteux’s two chords are the slowest. Which is weird, because his Eroica recording isn’t slow. I think he must have taken the chords out of tempo. He does the same with the opening of Beethoven’s 5th, the first four bars.
Can anyone tell me what is going on with the Weingartner recording??? Did he re-score it or something?
I also found the Levine particularly interesting; it packs a real punch. Incidentally, I got a kick out of seeing the inclusion of the 1958 Bruno Walter/Columbia Symphony verson. It happens to have been one of my earliest classical album purchases (on vinyl, of course) back in the mid-1970s. Gee, suddenly, I feel the urge to take it out for a spin on the ol’ turntable! Thanks, Tim.
I don’t think the Weingartner is re-scored. I listened to it several times and I think the balance is out of whack with the oboes being too loud and some questionable intonation. Maybe someone else hears something different?
What was most interesting to me was the variation in tempo. True, there were differences in “sound” as a result of instrumentation variances (tuning and etc.), but the tempo differences were surprising. The two opening chords were in the tempo of the movement (ONE two three, ONE two three, then into the main theme). Some conductors made them dramatic (maybe out of tempo) whereas others were right on “beat”so to speak. Having played in as well as conducted orchestras I recognize this opening as being not only dramatic but prophetic of the rest of the movement so its character sets the stage, not only for the first movement, but for the entire piece.
On Weingartner: sounds to me like a clear case of really bad intonation. And by the way, what about NY Phil with Mitropoulos (at about 0:33), where it sounds like someone is playing a blatantly wrong note (an F?) in the second chord! In a recording!! Or was it by any chance recorded live at an actual performance?
On tempo: in several instances the difference does not reflect what happens in the rest of the movement, because some conductors approach the two opening chords as a prologue that is not part of the main theme (there certainly is a strong argument for doing so – for example, they do not appear in recapitulation) and therefore play them out of tempo – either make them more majestic and then pick up a more energetic speed in the third measure, or start more decisively and then hold back a bit letting the cellos “sing” the main “tune” more lyrically.
On tuning: most period instruments ensembles play everything a half-tone (or sometimes even more than that) lower than the “regular” symphony orchestras. So, surrounded by contemporary E-Flats, those “period” chords certainly don’t sound like the same notes at all, but like a “normal” D-Major.
And one more point. Yes we know what music follows the two chords but still here we are listening to them in isolation or, in other words, out of the context of the piece. In such listening conditions, the impact of the two chords depends to a much greater degree than usual on various parameters and on the overall quality of the recorded sound: ambiance, balance, equalization, clarity, separation, reverberation and so on – rather than on the performers.
On Weingartner: I hear a kind of wavering sound, like tremolo violins, after each chord. I guess it’s just reverb.
I thought the wrong note was in the first chord of the Barbirolli, not the second of the Mitropoulus … I’ll listen again.
Are you playing in the Giulini chords, MarK, or was that before your time?
That mysterious “wrong F” is in the second Mitropoulos AND in the first Barbirolli too! Could it be the same unreliable horn player in both recordings? Just wondering…
Of course i was in the Giulini chords – don’t you recognize my young and still immature yet already gorgeous sound in them??? Seriously though, it was one of my first orchestral recordings and my favorite moment of The Maestro’s interpretation was – no, not the opening chords, alas – it was the most palpably “wounded” c-minor bass line in the cellos around the middle of the slow movement with its beautiful emphasis on weak beats: it made me choke up every time.
Maybe it’s just me, but there does seem to be the slightest (but noticeable) creep up in pitch beyond just the difference between “regular” and “period” symphony intonation. I know that an increasing number of “big” American orchestras tune to A=442 instead of 440, and I heard that one of them (Boston perhaps?) allegedly tunes to A=444.
When did this start to become prevalent? And is this some of what I’m hearing?
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