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Music Review: Two Beethoven Fifths

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Ludwig van Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, "Opus 67," is one of the most recognizable pieces of classical music to novices and experts alike. Its distinctive four-note motif struck twice to introduce the piece is immediately identifiable as a hallmark of Western, if not World, Civilization.

The Fifth Symphony was difficult for Beethoven to complete. The first sketches of the piece were made in 1804, following Beethoven's finishing touches on the Third Symphony. Between 1804 and 1808, Beethoven was repeatedly distracted from his work on the "Opus 67" to compose other pieces, including the first version of his opera Fidelio, the Appassionata piano sonata, the Violin Concerto, the Fourth Piano Concerto, and the Fourth Symphony. Completion of the Fifth Symphony took place in late 1807, early 1808 and was conducted contemporaneously with completion of the Sixth Symphony.

The Fifth Symphony premiered on December 22, 1808 at a at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna. The concert consisted entirely of Beethoven premieres directed by the composer himself. The performance took more than four hours and included in addition to the Fifth Symphony, the Sixth Symphony, sections from the C Major Mass, the Fourth Piano Concerto, and the Choral Fantasy.

Beethoven has never been out vogue or the concert hall. Recordings of the complete Nine Symphonies abound and of the Fifth and Ninth Symphonies in particular. Two notable orchestras and conductors are currently working their respective ways through Beethoven's symphonic canon: Osmo Vanska and the Minnesota Orchestra (in the first American cycle in decades) on BIS and Philippe Herreweghe and the Royal Flemish Philharmonic on Pentatone.

These two conductors and orchestras approach Beethoven from two unique and well-established directions with two equally unique and fresh interpretations. Add to this the hybrid SACD capability and these recordings win on all fronts. The nice thing about recording Beethoven Symphony cycles is that the listener is guaranteed nine superb pieces of music.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Beethoven Symphonies 4 & 5 [Hybrid SACD]
Minnesota Orchestra, Osmo Vanska
BIS, 2005

The United States has provided several notable Beethoven Symphony cycles that include Arturo Toscanini with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, George Szell with the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra, Bruno Walter with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, and Sir Georg Solti with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. All of these sets are time honored and continue to be well thought of.

These performances are characterized by an expansive portrait sound comparable to a large colorful landscape. Performance and recording methods render these symphonies as wall-of-sound, two dimension large canvas scale. Osmo Vanska's inaugural recording with the Minnesota Orchestra on BIS records is no exception to this rule. If anything, Vanska's canvas is super-sized, providing a panoramic view of Beethoven in all his splendor. "Symphony No. 5" (coupled with "Symphony No.4" here) is as robust as it is plush.

Vanska opts for conservative tempi with a broad and deep sonority. The BIS engineering places in entire orchestra in the back, with the instruments using equal ground in the sound window. The percussion is equal to the strings are equal to the brass. Vanska makes no historical performance claims outside of his desire to stay faithful to the original score. As the history of recording has shown, this can mean a lot of things.

Vanska's Fifth (coupled here with the Fourth Symphony) is deliberately and thoughtfully paced. The transition from the third to fourth movements is seamless and powerful, exuding all of the majesty intended by the composer. Such conducting consideration typically leads to a darker, more rich interpretation, one that shines its light from the Romantic side of Wagner rather than the classical side of Haydn. The result is a full-bodied American performance captured in living color by the crack BIS engineers. This is warm surround-sound Beethoven.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 5 & 8 [Hybrid SACD]
Royal Flemish Philharmonic, Philippe Herreweghe
Pentatone, 2007

Philippe Herreweghe could not have approached his Fifth Symphony any more differently. Herreweghe is best know for his period instrument recordings of the Baroque repertorie with his Colligum Vocale. Like Nikolaus Harnoncourt before him, Herreweghe takes his period instrument experience and applies it to the modern orchestra, in this case with dazzeling effect.

Herreweghe takes allegro con brio seriously, clicking of the symphony opening at a fast pace. Sonically this is three dimensional Beethoven the listen can walk around in. Where Vanska's Fifth is a beautiful painting, Herreweghe's is an interactive landscape where tone fly around the listener as he or she is walking through. Herreweghe's approach and attack are fresh and clean with little of the romantic excess usually reserved for this piece in the 20th century. The engineering ensures discreet separation between insturments and instrument groups.

This is Beethoven at a trot. While thoughtfully considered, Herreweghe throws this masterpiece off with a fearlessness that never breaks down. The symphony makes sense. While not a high wire act, Herreweghe's Fifth is nevertheless a bracing experience for the listener, who will hear this piece and wonder when it will fall apart, but it never does and in fact is executed perfectly. The 5.1.1 Surround Sound is stunning. One might expect Herreweghe's Ninth to require a new Holy Day of Obligation.

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About C. Michael Bailey

I am sanctified and Southern fried, My mama tried and daddy cried; I tell the truth 'cept when I've lied And I like my huevos on the side...
  • Nice piece. Very interesting. Thanks for sharing it!

  • bliffle

    “The concert consisted entirely of Beethoven premieres directed by the composer himself. The performance took more than four hours”

    This magnificent concert presentation was reproduced a couple years ago by someone (I forget who) and I heard it on the radio, probably NPR.

    Sometimes Beethoven is so heart-achingly and incomparably beautiful one wonders that anyone could ignore him. It is almost always interesting to hear new presentations of his major works: they are so full of new interpretive potential.