Thoughts on the Fifth

Written on January 16, 2009 by Rolf Strom-Olsen in Arts & Cultures & Societies

Rolf Strom-Olsen

Beethoven Whether one's musical tastes run to Beyoncé, Miles Davis or even Las Ketchup, there are several pieces of the classical repertoire which almost everybody knows (to quote Leonard Cohen). This can be for several reasons. As perennial Christmas favourites, excerpts from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker and a certain chorus from Handel's Messiah have entered the cultural lexicon and it is virtually guaranteed that we will hear these pieces at least once (and probably more like 20 times) every December. Others, like Delibe's Flower Duet or Saint-Saëns' The Swan show up so often in movies and commercials that they end up familiar to our ears, even if we don't actually know their names.

And then there are the towering classics that have been famous from practically the moment they were written. Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik is one example. I was once in the Frankfurt Airport when this music was playing in the background and I can recall being truly astonished at just how many people were absentmindedly and familiarly tapping their feet, whistling or nodding their heads along with the music. In fact, in a poll I recently conducted on the topic of the one person I thought might perhaps be unfamiliar with this piece, the (slightly indignant) response to my query was: "I heard 9 notes. Yes I know this. Who doesn't?" (Results may be invalid due to small sample size, however). Another instance is Vivaldi's Four Seasons, which may be the most recorded piece of classical music of all time.

The Mozart and Vivaldi have the benefit of being relatively easy to play and simple to interpret. One version is much like another and the enjoyment of such pieces does not lie in the balance. But I wish to consider a piece in the classical repertoire that, while being universally well-known, provides a challenge of performance and one where the recording one chooses to acquire makes a big difference in how we come to know and listen to the work.

Beethoven's Great C minor symphony, the Fifth, with it's instantly famous and recognisable opening: da-da-da-Dah, da-da-da-DAAH. This piece rightfully deserves a place in anyone's music library and it is therefore not surprising that the market has responded to high consumer demand. There are more than 200 available recordings of this work, and by available I mean that one can buy right now. If one adds in all the old, out-of-press versions, who knows how many different renditions of this piece have been made in the hundred odd years of recording. All the great names, most of the not-so great names, and even a handful of the mediocre, utterly forgettable and outright bad names, have taken a turn at recording this piece. Herbert von Karajan, for instance, recorded the piece at least 4 times. With all this choice, many people I suspect end up selecting a version more or less at random (which is also how I tend to order food from unfamiliar menus, which explains why I have eaten Migas more than once in my life, but I digress). That is unfortunate. Of the vast plethora of available recordings, there are surprisingly few that are really good.

The problem comes from the very familiarity of the piece. The challenge for the conductor to provide an interpretation which somehow is different from the vast number of other versions means that a wide range of different approaches has been taken. The very opening of the piece, those familiar 8 notes that have entered universal consciousness, present a very great difficulty, despite the seeming simplicity of the phrase. Should they be played in strict time? Or should one slow down? How long should one hold the two sustained notes at the end of each four-note shape. Beethoven himself tinkered with the opening after the first performance of the piece, adding in a second minim (or half-note) at the end of the phrase to indicate with greater precision how long the dramatic opening should last before proceeding. The ambiguity of the opening phrase determines in many respects the rest of the piece.

To my mind, Beethoven's fifth needs to be understood as a self-resolving contradiction. In form, it is a strictly classical symphony in the tradition of Haydn and Mozart. But it is also genre-busting. It explodes the classical language of the 18th century in its brio, breadth and emotional range. As a result, a good performance needs to get from the piece both its classical constraint and its highly dramatic proto-Romantic character. The feat is a bit like talking and drinking water at the same time.

So I recently asked my friend Bruno Soeiro (a composer and general God of discography) for his choice for the 5 best recordings of Beethoven's Fifth. I agree with most of his selections and they demonstrate many of the same characteristics. They hold to a strict tempo (or metre). They get the most emotional impact of the work from Beethoven's score while not interceding with idiosyncratic or overwrought gestures. And they get a terrific sound out of their orchestra. Bruno's top five (with my commentary) are:

1 – Carlos Kleiber with the Vienna Philharmonic (1974)

I'll admit that I have only recently become familiar with this performance but I agree with giving it top ranking. This is a wild ride, with a raw, exhilirating sound. The string section, especially in the first movement, sounds like they are going to break their instruments, while the horns and woodwinds have a naked expressiveness. Kleiber uses this sound – deep punches from the horns, corruscating strings – to enhance the excitement of the score. But he also keeps his orchestra firmly together and maintains a strict, up-tempo, and steady meter.

When this disc first came out, critics were wide-eyed with admiration and astonishment that such an old favourite could be made to sound new and fresh and it has remained a top choice ever since.

2 – Klemperer with the Philharmonia Orchestra (1955 version)

The reason I had not bothered to listen to Kleiber's 1974 recording was that I was very happy with my old Klemperer performance. This is a mono recording alas, but what it lacks in sound quality it makes up for in Klemperer's astonishing control over the orchestra and highly sensitive approach to the highs and lows of the Fifth. Indeed, it is an unusual accomplishment to wring so much colour out of the piece, despite the limitations of the recording quality. Klemperer was certainly an "old school" conductor and, like Kleiber, he maintains an unwavering tempo and is never tempted by the drama or ostentation that the work has a tendency to induce. But at the same time, this is certainly not a dry or uninvolved performance. It bustles along and is filled with both urgency and lyricism. Klemperer's handling of the last movement, the music of which risks at times descending into sententiousness, strikes exactly the right balance between Big Noise and Stateliness on the one hand and a crisp pace and sound on the other.

Bruno writes, "by the way, the Klemperer version is the one included in the Voyager Golden Record. I believe the extraterrestrial life forms will be very pleased with this interpretation!"

I heartily agree.

3 – Furtwängler with the Berlin Philharmonic (1954 version)

Personally, I disagree with this selection. To my taste this performance, like many of his recordings, has too much  Furtwängler and not enough Beethoven. This is a performance that emphasises the drama of the piece and is practically Wagnerian in its scope. That said, this is the standout representative of the late-Romantic German conducting tradition that stemmed from figures like Hans von Bülow and Hans Richter and Furtwängler's Beethoven generally has a wide following. 

4 – Karajan with the Berlin Philharmonic (1962 version)

An effective and disciplined performance that is a solid favourite and has been reissued a thousand times. Karajan recorded the complete Beethoven symphonies (the so-called cycle) 4 times over the course of his long career. By the end, he seems frankly a little bored. But this earlier version is still fresh.

Courtesy of Youtube, we can watch Karajan's ego conduct the piece (and if you do make sure you get to at least 1' 27" in for the hilariously misguided decision by German Television to focus on Karajan's hands which makes him look like some kind of conducting Nosferatu.)

5 – Simon Rattle (2003: Vienna Philharmonic).

This is Bruno's dark horse candidate and one which I frankly don't know so I will let him speak for himself:

I knew my Rattle in the top 5 would be controversial!!! … His 'Englishness' can be a bit irritating but his version is different from the other recent ones. For example, the last version by Claudio Abbado is ok, but it doesn’t bring anything new; you feel like you’ve heard it before. Another example is the recent version of Daniel Barenboim. It’s ok, but I get the same feeling – nothing new.

For me, the most positive aspect of the Rattle version is its freshness. He has conducted a lot with period instruments (even a Fidelio production). I think he successfully mixes the two main modern approaches to Beethoven: Period and Modern instruments. If on the one hand some versions with period instruments are too dull, on the other, some versions with modern orchestras tend to be too emotional and pompous.

Well put and I am looking forward to hearing it. (My thanks to Bruno for his thoughtful suggestions.)


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