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.
- 0:00 I. Allegro con brio (C minor): I can’t set this to zero because the lowest setting for seconds is 1, and that cuts off the first note. So if this starts too late, wind it back.
- 7:19 II. Andante con moto (A♭ major)
- 17: 16 III. Scherzo: Allegro (C minor)
- 21: 51 IV. Allegro – Presto (C major)
- 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)
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.