In the age before mechanical reproduction made celebrated new works easily obtainable, one was lucky to hear under normal circumstances a new opera or symphony in the live setting. If you were a regular concert goer in a European center you might expect to hear it perhaps only once. After that there were transcriptions made available so that the amateur pianist or chamber group could re-experience the music again in a DIY situation.
And so for example Beethoven’s celebrated and/or then-scandalous “Eroica Symphony,” i.e., the “Symphony No. 3,” was made available in a transcription for piano quartet in 1807, after its 1803 premiere.
We get to experience that transcription as it was meant to be heard on Volume 6 of the Beethoven Explored series, The Chamber Eroica (Metier msvcd 2008). Ironically the populist-oriented chamber version exists now as a kind of relic. The age when you could fairly easily put together a piano quartet from local musicians and dive into the music is long gone. We all grew up in a world where the “Eroica” was readily available on LP and now CD in small towns with a record store, or at the click of a mouse on the internet today.
Yet the piano quartet version now gives us different reasons for its hearing. It gives us a very cogently boiled-down version of the classic symphony, yes, but in hearing it we experience the work on entirely different terms, as chamber music. Perhaps surprisingly the music wears its chamber identity quite well. There is of course little left of the hugeness and grand sonoric sweep that a good symphony orchestra brings to the music. But the melodic interplay of the four parts holds forth as convincing in entirely different terms. It sounds less romantic, at times more classical. The brio is there but not the wallop of a large, full orchestra.
Part of this has to do with the quality of the transcription, put together then by we-do-not-know-who. The liner notes of the CD make a case for the likelihood that Beethoven himself did it, since it shows such a familiarity with the full score and faithfully choses the essence of the music for chamber presentation. In the end it probably does not matter all that much who did it.
The chamber quartet of Peter Sheppard Skaerved on violin, Dov Scheindlin, viola, Neil Heyde, cello, and Aaron Schorr, piano, enter into the spirit of the music with enthusiasm and joy, with style and great grace. They give to the music all the Beethovenesque stylings one could ask for, so that suddenly we see the parallels between this chamber “Eroica” and something like the “Ghost” Trio. Listen to the funeral movement for example and you hear something quite a bit more intimate but moving still. And when you consider that music lovers of the era probably heard this version as much or more than the symphonic rendition, it does make you pause.
I for one find this recording enlightening and quite a joy to hear. That should hold true for anyone who has valued the “Eroica” over the years and is ready for a different take on it. Bravo!