Beethoven: Symphony No 5 | Symphony Study No. 16 of 118

by Glenn on October 26, 2015

Ludwig Van Beethoven
Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Opus 67
first performance: 1808

I am listening to the Beethoven Symphonies as interpreted by John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. A couple of weeks ago I arrived at this tipping point in Beethoven’s symphonic production. On a basic level, you’ve heard five of his symphonies, there are only four left.

On another level, though, it feels like the Fifth is a tipping point in the entire history of the symphony. Up to this point, you could argue that symphonies are just a collection of movements. Sure, the idea was that the movements held together through relationships of keys. But here is something different. I don’t know what to call it—a destination symphony?

Sonata form was an operating principle, particularly in the opening movement: you started home, went somewhere, and came back home. Now we are starting someplace and ending up in another, completely different, place. We don’t go home, we go somewhere else. I’ve already noted in previous posts that Beethoven is moving the weight of the symphony toward the end of the symphony, but here we have a final movement that acts as a resolution for the first. The dark minor tonality of the first movement is transformed into a jubilant end.

No wonder Beethoven’s Fourth gets lost when you’ve got the Fifth. Michael Steinberg writes,

“The victory symphony was a new kind of symphony, and Beethoven’s invention here of a path from strife to triumph became a model for symphonic writing to the present day.”

This path is what Mahler takes in a number of his symphonies, the first, second, and fifth for sure.

It’s fascinating to listen to this familiar work played with a different aesthetic. This is HIPP Beethoven, which is to say it is Beethoven performed with “historically informed performance practice.”

What Gardiner is doing is HIPP. He is approaching Beethoven using, among other things, the following:

1. Period instruments (or close copies of period instruments), including wood flutes and natural trumpets and horns.

2. Limited vibrato

3. Gut strings

4. Quicker tempos based on best available scholarship.

Obviously, there are no recordings of Beethoven recording his music and so it’s challenging to try and understand from historical records how Beethoven might have sounded. Even if there were recordings, they wouldn’t tell you everything you want to know.

When the recording industry came into being in the early 20th century and composers (Sir Edward Elgar is a great example) began to record their music, those recordings were compromised and cannot be accepted as definitive for what the music should sound like. The recording room was different from the concert hall.

Among the compromises that can be found in those early audio recordings are such things as an added tuba so the double-bass line can be heard or very small string sections affecting balance and sonority, or tempos based on how much time was available on a disc rather than the metronome markings, etc.

It’s hard to know what Beethoven’s music would have sounded like, but I appreciate what Gardiner is doing. You hear this music differently.

I also like modern recordings. Styles change over time and that’s not all bad. Modern orchestras have modern instruments and play with vibrato and string sections no longer use gut strings. For the sake of sounding pretentious, I will say that “the last time we were in New York” we got to hear the New York Philharmonic play Beethoven’s 5th under the direction of Christoph Von Dohnányi.* It was a wonderful, modern performance. For the record, I’d sit in box seats for the New York Phil every week. No problem.

I like HIPP Beethoven. I like modern Beethoven.

What I don’t like is the attempt to try and make a modern orchestra sound HIPP. It isn’t HIPP. There are a number of things that go awry:

1. Without vibrato the modern string section sounds anemic—thin and unpleasant. A HIPP band will play with limited vibrato but the string section will sound richer because they are using gut strings and a lower overall pitch reference.

2. Period and modern woodwinds sound significantly different.

3. And, if I am not mistaken, modern brass instruments have larger bores producing a bigger brass sound.

Bottom line: choose your century and stay there, but don’t mix and match and call it HIPP.

End of rant.

All this to say, I enjoyed this recording and the approach Gardiner takes. The balance is striking. Coming up to 6’ into the first movement, there are some lines that can feel very mushy in a modern orchestra. Here they are crystal clear.

What you get from this performance is a very unsettling feeling in the opening movement. It’s not some declarative musical statement based on da da da DUM. It’s frenetic. I can’t imagine how disturbing this music had to sound to its first hearers. This is not an opening movement à la Mozart or Haydn with a first theme and a contrasting second theme. It is relentless. Anxious. Without relief.

The second movement in this performance includes no added schmaltz. The lines say what they say without the sentimentality that is sometimes added in modern orchestras.

I wonder if this is the first time in the history of the symphony that one movement flows right into another the way the third does into the fourth. (Also, the the fourth movement includes a reprise of elements of the third.) The bassoon and horn solos near the end are delightful. The period bassoon has that different tonality and the hornist is flawless in spite of the fact you can tell he or she is working without valves.

Postscript: For fun I listened to Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker perform Beethoven’s Fifth through the Digital Concert Hall while I was preparing notes for a sermon.

Again, I like the HIPP approach but I also like a modern band that plays cleanly, which the Berliner Philharmoniker most definitely does. I’m not a sophisticated enough listener to compare Rattle’s Beethoven with the previous Berlin conductors Claudio Abbado and Herbert von Karajan, but I can say the Berlin players are extraordinary and I loved this performance. It’s a much bigger sound than the OreR, but it’s controlled. And the sound is more polished, which I don’t mean in any sort of pejorative sense toward the HIPP recording.

In the second movement, the woodwind blend in the second movement is extraordinary. And Rattle keeps the tempo moving and a reasonable lid on the dynamic extremes—this isn’t Wagner after all.

The third movement is a virtuosic performance. The little fugueish movements in the strings (especially the basses) are so fast and clean. The music itself certainly has Haydn’s humor and mischief, but this is both more subtle and more powerful.

Elation comes in this last movement. The piccolo (the first time in the history of the symphony?) rides on top adding a new sparkle. Rattle seems particularly tuned into keeping lines of motion forward of static chords. What a blend.

I’m thinking I wouldn’t refuse season tickets at the Berlin Philharmonie either.

This recording I listened to is from a series performed over five days earlier this month (see calendar) of the complete symphonies of Beethoven. Next month, the Berliner Philharmoniker will repeat this five-day journey through Beethoven’s symphonies at Carnegie Hall. It appears they will be doing this also in Paris, Vienna, China, and Japan.

From an article announcing the Carnegie Hall concerts, a couple of quotes from Sir Simon Rattle about the Beethoven symphonies that ring true for me:

“For orchestra, conductor, and audience, if you’ve heard these pieces over five days you really get an idea of how the entire 19th century was made—how it was taken from one place and moved to another by the force and genius of one man.”

“To do Beethoven symphonies is hard enough, but to do a cycle of Beethoven symphonies is something very different. It’s at the center of music. It’s such a journey through [Beethoven’s] life. And of course it’s clearly the same composer who’s written the First and who’s written the Ninth, but the distance between them is really astonishing…You can also see someone building a whole edifice that will support the music of the next 150 years.”

*The truth is, we’ve only been to New York once. It doesn’t seem likely that we will back anytime soon. But “the last time we were in New York” sounds so much more impressive than “the one time we visited New York.” I think New York would be great if I had a large trust fund or some highly marketable skill set.