Who Has The Best Fifth Of Beethoven?

Mar 2, 2016

Late last year, I received another set of all of Beethoven’s symphonies and a student working here at JPR heard my sighs and asked what prompted them. I explained that we had been given yet another recording in a decades old tradition of one conductor recording all nine symphonies of Beethoven and our space is limited. Being an intelligent young man, he asked how I decide whether it is worth holding on to and since the station has many recordings of the same thing, how I determine what recordings go on the air. We are running out of room for more CDs but the space issue may be resolved when music is stored in the cloud. What to play will always be a subjective decision.

I thought that I would take a couple of measures of the most famous piece of classical music and compare recordings and with the launch of the Jefferson Journal, I wanted to create the possibility of a link to the web site so that you could hear the difference for yourself. For the print version, I will try my best to describe what I hear though there is a famous saying; “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture”. 

These are the first four measures of Beethoven’s fifth symphony. For those of you, who don’t read music, don’t worry, since what distinguishes each unique performance is the rhythm and speed but the pitches stay the same in every version. Let me give you brief description: The 2 over 4 only means that there are two (2) beats in the measure and the length of one beat is a quarter (¼) note. The symphony begins with a rest and that will affect how the first three notes sound - it should make the note in the second measure stronger. It has a fermata or a hold above it so the length of that note is open to interpretation. The next two measures repeat the idea but now the lowest note seems to be twice as long and it also has a fermata. You will hear a lot of variety in the length of the longest sounding notes as each conductor creates the music as he hears it.

The first recording is with John Eliot Gardiner leading the Orchestre Révolutionaire et Romantique on original instruments. In the performance, I hear a sense of urgency in the first three notes propelling us to the longer note and the length of the held notes feels right in rhythm so that you could tap your toes without stopping and the second long note doesn’t sound any longer the first one.

Next we turn to Kent Nagano who leads the Montréal Symphony Orchestra from the complete set I referred to earlier. The first thing you may notice is that it sounds higher; that’s because it is. The tuning of original instruments for the Gardiner recording is lower, usually A=415 and standard tuning is A=440 for all the others. But it is similar in its urgency; the shorter notes lead to the long note but the second long note is longer than the Gardiner recording.

The Benjamin Zander recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra is the shortest sample because the shorter notes are quick and the long notes are comparatively short. In fact, it sounds to me like he is almost ignoring the fermatas over both long notes.

In the recording with the Chicago Symphony under Georg Solti, there is that drive in the shorter notes like the previous examples but the orchestra is larger and they are a bit slower. The big difference is in the longer notes; they are both held longer than earlier versions and the second one is much longer than the first.

And now, Wolfgang Sawallisch leads the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, and he gives each of the shorter notes more fullness with a more even emphasis on all three of the notes. You begin to lose the sense that they are propelling us to the long notes but each short note is more deliberate, lending credence to the characterization of this famous theme a musical version of ‘fate knocking’.

Finally, Leonard Bernstein with the Vienna Philharmonic combines some of that fateful feeling but returns to a sense of movement with the shorter notes driving to the long notes. In both this recording and the previous, the longer notes are held but there is very little difference between the lengths of each.

Of course, if you can listen to a longer segment of all these recordings, you will hear an even more personal rendering of Beethoven’s manuscript. It is what makes many of us come back to music that be familiar but that we may hear anew.