1804: Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 in C minor

SUNDAY, October 25, 2020 – 2:14 AM

(Usually I pick one recording and stick with it. But in this case there are two modern conductors that to me are equally amazing, in very different ways. This is also my 4th update of this post.)

Symphony No. 5 in C minor, age 34

Gardiner, period instruments, live…

I swear these players were absolutely on fire when they recorded it. It’s fast. You feel like you just got shot out of cannon. There is so much adrenaline in this that each time I hear it the energy shocks me. I have never in my life seen a group of players more totally committed to an interpretation.

The instruments crack and clack. There are all sorts of noises. The old French horns sound like car horns sometimes because they are so raw, and the trumpets are also raw, valveless. The timpani sound very different with those wooden sticks, whatever they are. Beethoven never heard anything like this except in his mind. These modern players are whole lot better than players in his time, and a million times better rehearsed. I think Beethoven would be shocked to hear this performance, and amazed. I think he might say, “WOW! That’s what I wanted it to sound like!”

  • 0:00 I. Allegro con brio (C minor): Fast, powerful, faster, more powerful. There is nothing subtle about this. It’s just pure power, and for this symphony it’s what I want.
  • 6:44 II. Andante con moto (A♭ major): If I have one criticism of Gardiner it’s how he treats slow movements. He always seems in a hurry, and I’d like this movement to have more breadth, more time. Even so, it’s very well played.
  • 15:24 III. Scherzo: Allegro (C minor): This movement seems a bit slower by the time. In fact it’s very fast, but Gardiner repeats the beginning and middle section, which others don’t do. And I don’t know. The string players look like they are trying to saw the strings right off the instruments. There was only one other conductor who had that idea in mind, and that was Toscanini, another “fire-breather”. Oddly the studio recording by Gardiner is much tamer, and very differently accented, as if he rethought things in this recording. The studio recording has smoother sound, but the performance is utterly lifeless compared to this.
  • 22:17 IV. Allegro – Presto (C major): Again, it’s fast. More adrenaline. I think too much of this ruins a lot of music, but not this. It just feels right.

Modern orchestra, Carlos Kleiber…

This is chosen by many as the best recording in history of this symphony. It appears to be a bit faster than Gardiner’s, but that is totally deceptive because he does not take the repeat in the 3rd movement so it’s actually slower. This would probably be my second choice of best recordings I’ve heard, although for me nothing quite equalizes Gardiner’s insanely exciting live performance.


  • 1 piccolo (fourth movement only), 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets in B♭ and C, 2 bassoons, 1 contrabassoon (fourth movement only)
  • 2 horns in E♭ and C, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones (alto, tenor, and bass, fourth movement only)
  • timpani (in G–C)
  • strings

The most famous symphony of them all…

If there is one symphony that is more famous than any other, this may be it. If you just say “Beethoven’s 5th”, anyone know knows music will know what you are talking about. And yet people who say they know nothing about music, who don’t even like “classical music”, will know this. It is truly universal.

There is also a 5th sonata, and a 5th piano concerto, and a 5th string quartet, but there is only one famous 5th, and it’s this one, and this man. Why do so many people respond to his music? I don’t know. But it’s just magic. My father had old 78 records of Toscanini conducting it, and I can still remember every phrase, what he did differently. I won’t post it here – the sound is awfully primitive – but look it up if you are interested.

Four movements, each a piece of its own, but they all belong together…

Four movements for symphonies was the norm for Beethoven and remained the norm ever since. People may not write as many symphonies today, but they still follow this model. Some symphonies also have only three movements, and there are other variations, but this is the common one. It could be that Beethoven was so good, no one else could better him. He did not invent this idea, but he took it to a level never before heard, and never since bettered.

The balance between minor and major is amazing, and major wins, in the end…

Without minor there is no drama. Everything is happy-shiny, and there is no contrast and contrast. It’s like a story where everyone is happy and no one has to overcome anything. You need dark and light, tension and calm. So Beethoven starts in minor, fast, then a slow, thoughtful movement follows in major. Then next a form called a scherzo, three beats to the measure, back to minor, back to darkness. There’s a middle section in major – always this contrast – but back to minor again. It all fades away, softer and softer, then something very unusual happens. Instead of stopping for the last movement, there is an incredible build or “crescendo” leading to some of the most powerful, joyous music you will ever hear, of course in major. That’s part of the magic, this war between darkness and light, with the light winning. You might say that Beethoven know both the “force” and the “dark side”. In his music there is a lot of “dark side”, but in his symphonies the “force” always wins.

18 thoughts on “1804: Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 in C minor

  1. I really couldn’t really tell the difference between Gardiner’s live and studio performances, apart sound “quality”. Movement 1’s beginning seemed quite close to 3 in terms of speed, with only 3 being a little bit faster. Movement 2 did stand out between 1 and 3, being slow and all. Movement 4 also fit in with 1 and 3, being “fast”. Also, when i first moved from Klieber to Gardinder’s recording, it did slightly bother me than the pitch changed, but i got used to it.

  2. Well, you gave me the Gardiner live version. I like it! Yeah, it sounds like a barely contained explosion! It’s even *faster* than the canned Gardiner.

    Car horns… *laughs* yeah, but I love that sound. Play it like you *mean* it! If the violins are not fearing for their lives, then you’re not trying hard enough! It’s a barely-contained trainwreck. One bad mistake and *BLAM* wood and brass all over the place. That’s the sound I like.

    It’s more about the spirit. The Gardiner fills me with joy, absolute joy… it feels like a fast horse-ride. It lifts me off the ground, and for half an hour, there is no world, only music. The others.. get close, but not like this.

    I did like the Klieber, but I feel it lacks that last degree of savagery that Gardiner and his revolutionary and romantics.

    I also have this by Karajan. Stodgy. Not very savage. Gardiner was an eye-opener, first time I heard him was around 2002 or so. I was left very much in a shambles, so brutal and violent it was. And it was the Symphonies I heard first.

    Bought the set, no regrets. Bought his Mozart symphonies and piano concertos, too. And a bunch of Bach. I’m a huge fan of Gardiner. Music is in good hands. In the 80’s and 90’s I feared we’d never have anohter Bernstein or another Stokowski… but I’m glad to see there are still utterly committed people teaching and learning this music today.

    And listening to it. If no one listens, did the violin speak?

  3. I listened to all four movements and watched the symphony concert on my iPad. It was wonderful and mindful and passed the time of day. Thank you for sharing this with us.

  4. If anyone else needs to know, the same movement starts in the Gardener at about 22 minutes. It helps me to go back and forth since my ears are still developing. In comparison to the old instruments, the modern performance is like a meal with generous sprinklings of MSG, nice and homogenously combined. There is a texture and life to the Gardener. There’s an instrument – maybe a flute – that stands out, like a texture. The instruments have their own personality and quirks, again with this impression of texture. I wonder though, there would also be the positioning of microphones and such.

    1. No recorded performance ever sounds the same as a live performance. Gardiner’s group is not as powerful as a modern orchestra. But that should not matter, because this also means the quiet places will be quieter. The dynamic range should be about the same. I prefer modern instruments for some things but the old ones for others. The conductor is more important than modern vs old instruments. Gardiner’s musicians are spectacularly good, so the real genius is in his conducting and the amazing playing. For me the older, valveless brass instruments have a rawer sound, more primitive, which fits this music (for me.) In contrast, I much prefer the 6th Symphony, the “Pastoral”, with a modern sound. For that the old sound is a bit too abrasive.

    1. The choice of baton – or no baton – is personal. Any length can be use, or none at all. Almost everything conductors do is for show. Most conduct with no music. The idea is that you don’t really know the music if you need the score – which, by the way, is utter crap.

      For instance:

      Poor old man obviously needed music, right? He was around 90. Except this is Stokowsky, who wrote the music he is conducting, his own arrangement of Bach. Apparently he still had keen sight at that age.

      Here is another video of him rehearsing.

      Orchestra members don’t care about the hands, the best, the baton, all the waving. 97% of everything is planned out and rehearsed. Everyone knows what everyone else has to do by the time they all get on stage. Conducting from memory is pure vanity.

      In other words, Bernstein was not a great conductor BECAUSE of his dramatics. He was a great conductor IN SPITE of them.

      1. Thank you for answering my question and going a step further by posting the Stokowski videos. I like the way he gives directions to the orchestra. The part where he talks about the composers marks on paper and the conductor’s duty to bring it alive to the audience was of particular interest to me.

        After doing a bit of research I discovered that he conducted the orchestra for the music in Disney’s Fantasia. I believe it was a way to get youngsters interested in some of the classics.

        Happy 137th birthday, (April 18), Leopold.

        1. Stokowski is a perfect example of what I believe in. No nonsense. You can hear it in rehearsal. He went right to facts, notes, directions. No touchy-feely nonsense. No yelling. No drama. He always had the score, also in performances. His beat was very easy to see. He was excellent with young players and with less experienced players. He was one of the first to fully explore recordings, and he was a wizard with instrumentation, seating, microphone placement, and so on – a rule-breaker and pioneer right up to his last year on the planet.

  5. Second, Gary. The Second rock star. I will posit that Wolfie was the first one to break the bonds of Government Employ and do it his own way. (he still took Colloredo’s money, gladly.)

    What Ludwig here is… he’s punk. He was the first punk rocker. Even when mad Woflie’s music was somewhat polite. Nuh-uh. Not Beethoven. His stuff was raw, angry music of pain and suffering. But have you noticed, how it almost always ends peaceful-like? No matter how stormy the beginning and how deeply slit-your-throat the 2nd movement is… the ends of his music tend to speak of joyous redemption, release, forgiveness. Or at least.. that’s how I feel it.

    But then, go listen to Bach’s 2nd violin partita, the one he wrote after Maria Barbara died. It’s raw pain, encased in the four delicate strings of the violin. Just one violin. I swear, it’s his crying I hear during the Chaconne movement.

    They all felt it. Some of them were more adept at yelling it out. Beethoven did it better than most. Maybe Tchaikovsky can top him. Dunno.

    And boy howdy, what an unfair fight you’ve set up here. Bernstein vs. Gardiner?

    My money’s on gardiner, and you know why ;o)~ I enjoy the more raw barely-controlled-trainwreck of these old orchestras. I wish I could hear him live. I’ve heard a fair bit of modern orchestras doing Mozart and Beethoven, but never heard one using instruments of the period.

    I have to say, though, the wood-stick kettledrums are so much more brutal and war-like than the later copper kettledrum with fuzzy heads on the sticks.

    And what did Gardiner call his orchestra? Revolutionaire et Romantique.

    Imma just gonna leave this here.. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lpe7thXd69E

    Chaconne’s about 11:20 into it. Think about it. He goes on a trip, comes back, dead wife, no one told him. This is what he wrote. o.O All these guys, they could emote without words. No banal, shallow lyrics. Just notes wrested from the depths of where we feel.

    1. Louie, when I said “first rock star” of course I was being a bit humorous. The whole matter of declaring independence from stuffy employers was a gradual thing. Mozart, at least at times, had to pay more lip service to the people he worked for. Beethoven was younger, and things were changing. We forget how young these people were when the died. Beethoven was dead at 56, Bach at 65, and I think Mozart only lived to age 35. Chopin died at 39. Schubert barely made it past 30.

      In order to compare Mozart and Beethoven you have to be fair. You have to find music written in the same year. Mozart completed his last symphony, the Jupiter, in 1788. Beethoven finished his 5th Symphony in 1808. Not only was he born almost 15 years later, he also lived much longer, so when you compare masterpieces, there is that difference in time. If you compare what Beethoven was writing in 1888, and remember he was born in December of 1770 (closer to 1771), Beethoven was around 17 when Mozart wrote his last and perhaps greatest symphony.

      If we assume Beethoven’s 9th Symphony was finished in 1824, that means a 36 year difference between the final symphonies of both. Now think about how much music changed between 1940 and 1976.

      From everything I’ve read Beethoven’s viewed himself as superior to the aristocray, and I’m not sure Mozart did quite the same thing. He “played the game” more, probably because he had to. Beethoven was more openly rebellious. Now, if Mozart had lived another 35 years, we might have seen more of the same open rebellion, because there was a total shift in mindset between the Classical and Romantic eras.

      1. I *will* comment about the Bach. I’ve never heard the whole suite, and I have never heard the Chaconne played that way before: I thought I knew it. Wow. Nor did I know what was going on in Bach’s life at that time. It made my day to listen to that today, and it was the right day to do so.

Leave a Reply