THE AWESOME FUNERAL march Beethoven composed as the second movement of his Eroica symphony is surely among the symphonic movements one wants least to have interrupted for record turnover, but the newest Eroica, even with such an interruption, is very much worth seeking out. The performance by the Symphonica of London under Wyn Morris on Peters International PLE 020 may in fact be just the thing many collectors have been waiting for.
The Welsh conductor, referred to as "our Celtic Furtwaengler" by one British critic, is known in this country, if at all, by a handful of Mahler recordings. (His versions of the Knaben Wunderhorn songs and Das Klagende Lied, formerly available on Angel, were perhaps the finest recorded performances of these works.) A "Celtic Furtwaengler" he may be, in the sense that his readings, like Furtwaengler's, impress one as being aflame with inspiration, as driven by intuitive feeling rather than being products of an analytical or otherwise intellectualized approach. The closest precedents for this particular vision of the Eroica, though, would seem to be the glorious 1953 mono recording by Otto Klemperer (deleted by Angel years ago, but available as an EMI import and also in a mail-order collection offered by the Franklin Mint) and the broadcast performance from the same year by Arturo Toscanini (Victrola VICS-1655e); but Morris is more galvanic than Klemperer, he shows more breadth than Toscanini, and of course he benefits from remarkably vivid new recording techniques.
Tempi throughout the four movements are natural and unforced; there is not an earthbound bar in the whole performance (which includes the first-movement exposition repeat), nor is there a suggestion anywhere that the music is overdriven. For all the individuality of the reading, for all its non-hysterical sense of urgency, one feels it is not Wyn Morris's Eroica the conductor is so intensely eager to give us, but Beethoven's. If the first movement impresses with its nobility, and the second with its grandeur, it is not because of an interpretive overlay on Morris's part, but simply because Beethoven wrote the music that way and Morris understands how to let him speak for himself.
The Symphonica of London, as I understand it, is an orchestra formed for recording purposes, with its members, like those of the similarly convened National Philharmonic, drawn from the top layers of London's five regular symphonic aggregations. It certainly sounds like a first rate group here; the horns are unusually impressive in their fiery presence in the scherzo (the scherzo proper as well as their famous spotlight role in the trio) and the great coda to the final movement. The drums, too, are allowed to be unusually assertive, without in any way exaggerating their contribution.
There have been more than a few fine recordings of this greatest of symphonies, and anyone who really loves the work is sure to want more than a single version. This one by Wyn Morris need not displace an old favorite, but commands a place of honor in any collection; it is the one I expect to be listening to most frequently in the months ahead, and the one I would recommend as a "basic" Eroica now. I have not heard the cassette edition (PCE-020), but, given the overall quality shown by Peters International in its transition from imports to its own label, it should be as safe a bet as the well-nigh flawless disc.