G-G-G-E flat. Recognise the piece already? Well unless you have perfect pitch or are an orchestral musician I’d suspect not, but these four notes that make up the ominous introduction to the first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor are arguably the most famous notes in all of classical music. Known throughout the world, the ‘Ta Ta Ta Taaa’ opening phrase is a hallmark of Beethoven’s orchestral writing and has thus been arranged, orchestrated, interpreted and performed vast numbers of times by various orchestras and conductors, as well as frequently sampled in films, and in disco and rock and roll versions. Interestingly, although rather disappointingly coincidental, the rhythm: short - short - short - long, also represents the letter V, or Roman numeral 5 in morse code: dit - dit - dit - da.
Despite a poorly rehearsed premier in 1808 during a concert that lasted over four hours, well known 18th-19th century critic E. T. A. Hoffman described the piece as ‘one of the most important works of the time’, as well as ‘indescribably profound’, and it is easy to understand why. Written between 1804-1808, the four movement symphony stretched the boundaries of the sophisticated and beautiful Classical period and began to tread on the heels of the more extravagant and emotional Romantic period, bringing about a change in the musical world that would last over 70 years. Indeed, the groundbreaking composition influenced pieces by other notable composers including Brahms, Berlioz and Tchaikovsky - his Fourth Symphony being the most obvious. Doubly interesting is the fact that this innovative piece was written in a particularly turbulent time for Beethoven. Alongside his increasing deafness, early 19th Century Austria was struggling under the occupation of Napoleon’s troops, causing political turmoil and unrest in the capital, Vienna, where Beethoven was in the midsts of composing both his 4th, 5th and 6th Symphony simultaneously. Yet despite the situation in the world around him, Beethoven’s 5th Symphony grew ever more popular as time went on, taking pride of place in orchestral repertoire, and being performed at some of the most prestigious concerts in the world, such as the inauguration concerts of the New York Philharmonic in 1842, and a recording of the first movement by the Philharmonia Orchestra was even sent into space aboard the Voyager probe in 1977 for alien life to discover.
The first movement of this symphony is perhaps the most interesting of the four movements, and easily the most discussed in terms of the interpretation of the first four bars. For centuries conductors have deliberated over whether to take the motif at a strict Allegro (minim = 108bpm) or whether to use the fermata over the fourth note as a basis on which to take the motif at a grander, more stately tempo, gradually slowing down through the quavers to land heavily on the fourth note for dramatic flair. Though I am not a conductor, given the circumstances in which the piece was written, its nickname “Schicksals-Motiv”, or “Fate motif’, and the fact that the second of the long notes is twice the length of the first long note, I am personally in favour of the molto ritardando approach, creating a far more foreboding atmosphere and filling the concert hall with suspense before introducing the wonderful second theme at a brisker tempo.
Though it might seem odd to put together a CD with all tracks featuring the same music, this superb collection of 13 different interpretations of Beethoven’s opening movement offers a unique opportunity to listen, compare and enjoy one of Beethoven’s most famous works. In the Naxos Music Library alone there are over 600 recordings that feature Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, so the 13 featured on this CD form a mere fraction of the recordings available in the world. In fact, the interpretations by 13 legendary musicians are so different that not once did I think I was listening to the same track on repeat. I shall endeavour to briefly comment on each of the 13 interpretations, which I hope will help you be able to talk with some authority on which recording you personally believe to be ‘the one’.
The first is an old recording (1951) by the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Otto Klemperer. Just by looking at the length of the recording, 08:09 in this case, we can see that Klemperer takes the movement at a slower tempo than the majority of the others on this CD which hover around the seven and a half minute mark. This stately tempo means there is no lack of tension, and Klemperer takes longer to develop and showcase the dynamics and textural changes that really make this piece great. Due to the recording being the oldest on the CD, the sound quality is naturally the ‘worst’, though Klemperer’s majestic interpretation means you are spellbound by the music nonetheless.
Following Klemperer is a 2005 recording of the Saarbrücken Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Stanislaw Skrowaczewski. One notices immediately that Skrowaczewski takes the piece at a much faster tempo, in total a minute and eight seconds faster than Klemperer, though he doesn’t skimp on the five bar introduction, putting particular emphasis on the second long note. Partly due to the modern recording technology and partly due to Skrowaczewski’s interpretation, you will find this recording to be far more delicate in the soft moments, and bolder in the climaxes, highlighting either the limits or strengths of the HiFi system on which you are listening to the piece. I cannot imagine this recording being forgiving on an entry level system. I think the rubato oboe section at around the four and a half minute mark deserves a particular mention as it is beautifully and captivatingly interpreted.
The third recording is the second oldest in this collection, having been recorded just 5 years after the first track by the Pro Musica Orchestra conducted by Jascha Horenstein in 1956. The recording quality is noticeably better than the first track, and the deep bass instruments are particularly prominent, making the opening motif more dramatic than most recordings on this CD. Only the slightly pillowy horn section gives away the age of the recording. As an overconfident young man, Horenstein met Klemperer after watching him conduct Mahler’s 9th Symphony and was told by Klemperer that it would take him 20 years to become a conductor. Many years later Horenstein himself commented that he believed 40 years experience was in fact needed to become a conductor, and his dedication to music even while living through the Second World War as a Jewish man shows through in this superb performance.
Track number four features the Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hans Rosbaud in 1961. This is the slowest interpretation on this CD, taking almost nine minutes to reach the final bars of the movement. Personally I think Rosbaud lingers a fraction too long on the second long note, pushing the boundaries of the fermata mark mentioned earlier. That is not to say the piece isn’t as engaging or enjoyable as the others, however it definitely errs on the side of a dark, brooding interpretation rather than the emotionally complex mixture of excitement, danger and introspection that other interpretations manage to capture. In fact, the darker introduction contrasts beautifully with the second theme where the higher strings and woodwind lead, showcasing Beethoven’s innovative experimentation with antiphony better than other recordings.
The next track is particularly interesting, as The Hanover Band perform the first movement on period instruments, conducted by Roy Goodman. Although this 1983 recording may initially sound thinner than other recordings, turn up the volume and let yourself experience the music as Beethoven himself would have heard it. Modern instruments have far more resonance and dynamic control than 19th century ones, so it is natural for the texture to be noticeably different. To achieve the same level of dynamics on period instruments compared to modern instruments, players have to push the instruments further, resulting in a slightly more strained sound. This is not a bad thing, however. Listen to the way the brass dominates forte moments with effortless blasts in modern recordings compared to the more balanced and emotional climaxes in this recording. If Beethoven wrote fortissimo on the trumpet or horn score, he wanted to create the sound heard here, evoking the same slightly desperate emotions. Judging by the amount of resonance one can hear, particularly from the horns in their solo moments and at the ends of phrases, this recording happened in a large performance venue which helps to compensate for the period instruments, though you lack the intimate, almost chamber music atmosphere that many period instrument recordings create.
As if to demonstrate how widespread the influence of this piece was, the sixth track features Frans Liszt’s arrangement for piano, performed by Konstantin Scherbakov in 1998. The celebrated pianist manages to capture almost the same level of textural and dynamic range as a full orchestra meaning this track does not feel out of place amongst the other recordings. In fact it provides a refreshing break from the might of the orchestral interpretations and allows us to hear Beethoven’s compositional genius from a completely different perspective. Each melodic line, harmonic device and textural variation is condensed masterfully by Liszt so that it is actually more distinguishable than the orchestral recordings. Without the huge variation in timbres of an orchestra and all powerful opinions of a conductor, Scherbakov has complete control over each aspect of the music, and the listener is rewarded because of it.
Cologne Chamber Orchestra’s 2006 recording conducted by Helmut Müller-Brühl is the seventh interpretation on disc one of this collection. A rather more delicate and precise performance than the others, with greater dynamic contrast and a far better recording in terms of instrumental clarity and accurate reproduction on a home HiFi system. Müller-Brühl takes the movement slightly faster than most, with no sign of a molto ritardando in the opening bars, replacing it with plenty of drive and determination, resulting in a very exciting performance. The timpani are particularly well recorded, and stand out more in this recording than any other on the CD, helping to emphasise the powerful tonic and dominant moments, and almost acting as the musical substitute for an exclamation mark.
The final track on disc one is the newest recording, performed by the Danish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Adam Fisher in 2016. This may well be my favourite of the recordings on this disc. The brisk tempo, crisp articulation and superb recording quality all contribute to a thoroughly engaging performance which, with the blissful amount of space between each instrument and vast soundstage also earns the crown of most lifelike performance to listen to at home. Fischer’s interpretation is energetic and vibrant, yet nowhere does it sound like the orchestra is running away from him. The oboe solo is suitably relaxed and almost sounds improvisational to contrast with the strict tempo of the rest of the music, and the woodwind and violin passages complement the tutti sections beautifully.
Moving on to disc two, we start with a 1970 recording of Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michael Gielen. This performance is again fairly fast, but far less delicate than the previous quicker ones. The Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra produces a colossal sound in the opening bars and there is no mistaking the music for anything other than Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. Gielen has focussed on creating an overwhelming feeling of apprehension in the opening bars, emphasising the lower instruments such as double bass and timpani, and the recording itself picks up a vast amount of resonance from the instruments, occasionally overpowering the music but creating an interesting sonority overall. If you like your Beethoven dark, thundery, and full of mystery, you will enjoy this recording.
The second track on disc two is without a doubt the fastest a conductor featured in this collection has taken the first movement. Lasting just 06:23, the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, this time conducted by Roger Norrington, perform a Beethoven extravaganza. Quite the contrast to their performance under Michael Gielen! Listening to the first and second track on disc two really demonstrates how differently conductors interpret the same music. This recording is great for those who like a dramatic air in their music. Full to the brim with exuberant crescendos, diminuendos, rallentandos and accelerandos, Norrington comes dangerously close to ‘overdoing’ Beethoven’s 5th, but it is a fantastically enjoyable listen nonetheless. I can only imagine what the atmosphere must have been like at a live performance of this particular interpretation.
The next track features the Dresden Philharmonic conducted by Herbert Kegel in a 1982 recording. The opening motif has a noticeable amount more clarity than most recordings, owing to the more staccato approach Kegel takes with the strings. Interestingly later on I thought that some of the countermelodies in the strings were actually more legato than on other recordings which I quite liked. An enjoyable listen with enough drama, contrast and suspense to do justice to Beethoven’s writing.
Following the Dresden Philharmonic is the Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia conducted by Béla Dahos, recorded in 1995. Dahos manages to quickly silence the orchestra in moments of suspense, leaving a slightly longer gap between tutti stab chords than other recordings, but allow the legato string and woodwind countermelodies to intertwine themselves elegantly between the main motifs. The orchestra has a relaxing warmth to it, and there is no harshness anywhere that can make some recordings tiring to listen to. The antiphonal conversation between instruments is expertly showcased, particularly around the six and a half minute mark with chords being handed round the orchestra.
The final four tracks on this CD bring the symphony, and the two hour listen to a satisfying closure by presenting the final three movements of the symphony in a new recording by the Malmö Symphony Orchestra. The conductor, Robert Trevino, takes the opening movement at a pace that keeps the listener hanging on to every note, while giving the more delicate, vulnerable moments enough space to breathe. The modern instruments produce a powerful texture that can be a little dense in forte tutti moments but Trevino’s use of space and silence, particularly at the ends of phrases makes this quite an exciting feature.
The final three movements are beautifully performed, and gratefully received after hearing the first movement 13 times. Finally Beethoven’s Victory Symphony is brought to a conclusion, with the famous transition from C minor to C major marking the transition from dark to light.
This CD was a pleasure to listen to, and it is also an incredibly interesting experience to have heard 13 markedly different interpretations of the same movement consecutively. Well worth a listen to for any Beethoven enthusiast who hasn’t yet got a favourite recording!
Available to pre order from Naxos Direct, HMV, and other online music retailers.