Coming back to this recording a year and a half later, and this time hearing it on its own rather than in the context of a comparative listening, I can give it a slightly more positive assessment than in the first version of this review. I've expressed in other reviews my decided preference for the "Toscaninian" approach to the Beethoven symphonies, and especially the Eroica, as opposed to the "Furtwänglerian" one (see for instance Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 3 "Eroica" and Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 3 "Eroica"). I take these two names as the epitome and symbols of two opposed and nearly irreconcilable understandings of and approaches to the interpretation of Beethoven. In capsule: Toscanini fast, driven, explosive, with biting accents; Furtwängler ample, weighty, grandiose, massive.
I prefer the Toscanini approach (I have the 1949 version, not usually considered his best, but I am entirely happy with it, see my review of Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 3) not only because it is closer to Beethoven's tempo indications and, hence, to what can be construed of his intentions (and I am not here even referring to the composer's notoriously fast and highly controversial metronome marks, but simply to the indications of character given to each movement other than the Funeral March: Allegro con brio, Allegro vivace, Allegro molto), but also because I find it much more exciting: "exuberant", "explosive", "joyous" are the words that come to mind when listening to Toscanini (or Scherchen, or Leibowitz), as opposed to Furtwängler's "stately", "massive", "grandiose", "leisurely".
That said, music is a vast world, and as much as I am convinced that the Toscanini approach is truer to the composer's letter and intent, I also believe that realizing the composer's intentions is only one possible goal of a performer but not the only one, that the score offers a vast array of possibilities, and that the composer's word is only one word, but by no means the only one, and sometimes not even the most interesting one. So I am all open to another approach, as long as the performer makes it work.
I was curious to go back to Klemperer. His complete cycle was the one I grew up with, years ago, before leaving aside Beethoven and his symphonies for another number of years. I hadn't heard those recordings since.
I can't say that I found his Eroica entirely effective and convincing, but I did think that it is overall a good representation of that very specific approach, and at times an effective one as well. Tempos are uniformly ample and leisurely, and Klemperer goes for mass and power rather than drive and ebullience. In every movement except the Funeral March Klemperer even "out-Furtwänglerizes" Furtwängler by adopting slower still tempos. And even in the Funeral March it is only in the concluding section, starting at 10:18, with the return of the theme on violins after the "Minore" section, that his slightly faster tempo makes him ultimately faster than "Furt".
Within that approach, where Klemperer strikes over Furtwängler is on two counts: infinitely better sonics, with a great stereo separation between first and second violins which convinces me that this is how it should be played and recorded, allowing for all the fugal interplay between them to come out in all clarity; and more snappy and energetic accents (although Klemp' decidedly leaves space for more on that account). I will also count Klemperer's more stable tempos as an asset, over Furtwängler's more instinctive (apparently) and, to me, less coherent style of conducting.
Still, Klemperer's interpretation generates, at least with me, little excitement, at least when I listen immediately after Toscanini. Here are the words I jotted down during his first movement (taken without repeat, which I find breaks the movement's structural integrity - and so did Beethoven apparently, as he kept the repeat bar after having considered doing away with it - and having performed it a number of times without it - in view of the movement's unusual length - but then, Toscanini didn't take the repeat either): "stately", "grandiose", "ample", leisurely" and even "elegant" and "balletic" (in the finale). But not "energetic", "dynamic", "exciting", "urgent", "great drive". Granted, when heard independently rather that in immediate proximity with Toscanini, the sheer piling of dynamic masses in the first movement does impress, thanks also to the great 1959 sonics. There is also a very specific lilt, a gentle swing born from the very deliberate 3/4 movement. The Funeral March has great weight and power, sounding, like Furtwängler's, less like a march than like a funeral lament, with the pathos of a Bach organ chorale arranged by Stokowski (and it works); again the stereo separation of the violins works wonders, and when the horn solo erupts at 9:11, it is grandiose. But it has its quirks, too. At 5:28 I wondered, where the hell were the brass. Listen to that passage, near the beginning of the "Maggiore" section, where the woodwinds and brass chords are written ff and sf, with Toscanini (at 4:41): he has his brass play a dry staccato which makes them ring with the violence of cannon shots (whether you find that violence appropriate is another matter - I do). With Klemp', you hear only the woodwinds: oboes and flutes. In fact, I am convinced that he cut the brass here, since you do hear them at the return of those chords a little further at 6:42. I suppose he wanted to create a contrast of color between both utterances of those explosive chords. But I miss Toscanini's violence.
No bubbles with Klemperer's unhurried scherzo - a leisurely after-lunch trot rather than the breathless race its "allegro vivace" indication might seem to indicate. Heard on its own its bonhomie and decibel power do have their appeal, although, again, it doesn't come near the excitement of the faster approaches (Toscanini, Scherchen, Munch, Szell to mention only some of the oldies). As for the finale, I do have a soft tooth for its very moderate tempo and it does elicit a sense of imposing grandeur, but it also instills the nagging impression that it too, like the scherzo, could have been used as the music for the ballet of the hippos in Fantasia. Mind you, those hippos are very elegant and full of grace - for hippos, that is. The coda is powerful but plods.
Ultimately, I'll keep this version in my collection, as a fine realization of an approach which I find biased and wanting, and I would certainly recommend it over Furtwängler's recording. But for these very reasons I'd strongly warn against having it as one's only recording, especially to a newcomer to the Eroica. It should be approached as only a complement to at least another, more dynamic version. One of my favorite Eroica so far, other than Toscanini's, is Leibowitz', Symphonies No. 1 & 3. I love Scherchen, but he's a firebrand radical, on the opposite pole from Klemperer: Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 3 & 6.
But note that, as long as you want to settle for the Klemperer approach, there is better: the 1967 recording by Klemperer's interpretive clone, Sir John Barbirolli, initially recorded for HMV and reissued by Dutton: Symphony 3 / Elizabethean Suite. Barbirolli has the same kind of deliberation and massiveness in the outer movements, but an added bite which gives it even more power without ponderousness, his Funeral March is even slower - the slowest I've ever encountered, in fact - and the effect is impressive, and his scherzo is brisk like Toscanini's.
I have this Klemperer Eroica on its previous CD release, on EMI Studio, from 1990 (Beethoven: Symphonie No. 3 "Eroica"; Große Fuge), so obviously I can't comment on whichever sonic improvements this new remastering (if indeed it is one, which I am not sure) has induced. The 1990 sonics were already great, with a measure of tape hiss that was perceptible mainly in the softer passages of the funeral march.