Back to Basics: Beethoven’s 5th

A friend tonight reminded me that I don’t often allow myself the Beethoven 5, as it is among the high sacraments for those of us for whom music is our church.

So when I did decide to delve in, I began with Karajan’s 1963 Berlin version. It is the sine qua non, and in the original Alle hersteller pressing absolutely astounding in its sonics, a performance with momentum bordering on desperation that cuts to the heart of Beethoven’s passion but avoids any paltry romanticism. This is conducting of immediacy, not convenience. Those final hammer notes in the first movement are stunning, even as the solace of the Andante creaps calmly along; the horns of the third movement are shock-and-awe brilliant in the glory of DGG’s early stereo years and the resounding acoustics of the Jesus-Christus Kirche.

The rest of HvK’s 1960’s cycle never really stuck with me, despite the fact that I was raised on them. But this 5th is a towering monument. And the acoustics are simply stunning, the touch of the cellos in the third movement reverberating in vivid color, a reading of certainty but not domination, as Karajan’s critics often accuse. The chorus of the finale bespeaks no hesitation and unfolds as a realization of the humanistic vision that Beethoven wrote for us. Anyone who says Karajan lacked Furtwängler’s dynamism or intensity has not listened to this closely. With or without its scratches. The finale is emblazoned, there is no other word.

Contrast I: The 1977 revision. It is like a master’s copy of the Mona Lisa, clearer in its lines, more perfect. It is not only overwhelming, but it is so rich in its coloration that it positively glistens. This is a 5th that celebrates more than struggles. The cellos do not so much dig for truth in that first paraphrase, as they dig for richness. It is a glistening sermon, seamless. The Maestro has woven the web of this conflicted, impassioned work into a more consistent document. As on the cover of the original album, it is a 5th on a pedestal. The sonics astound, though cannot match the vividness of the 1965 version (at least being spoiled with a first pressing as I am!) As a music critic friend once commented to me, this is the Hollywood version, with its gleam and polish. Not to undersell it, though, this 5th flows effortlessly like a wave, washing over you with its power and intensity. Yet it lacks the dynamic power and conflict of the 1965. In its moments of recompense, however, the beauty of the Berlin sound cannot be compared.

Contrast II: Carlos Keliber, 1975, in a recording that divides opinion still to this day. The Vienna Philharmonic make a glorious noise, and the acoustics are bar none. As this endlessly fascinating man did, he made the work his own: The tripletizing of the opening figure, an approach I’ve heard from no one since, on record or otherwise. It is an urgent interpretation, and energetic, but ultimately too smooth and superficial, without gravitas. The Vienna strings do not match Berlin’s depth or passion. We can’t blame too much of this on the recording, since the 1975 era and recording team were identical to Karajan’s version described above. For all of his gusto Kleiber is here seemingly most concerned with recording the Kleiber Version. His emphasis on rhythm is far more suited to the 7th, a work he performed more often with the VPO and elsewhere. He bounds along through the finale, but while this is a happy and energized reading, there is none of the genuine sense of humanistic triumph we get in Karajan’s first or second BPO recordings. It is novel, but not definitive by any stretch. For we audiophiles, I would mention that I am working off of a first pressing, with the original rare foil jacket.

Contrast III: Otto Klemperer and the Philharmonia, on EMI/Angel. This is a different animal altogether, an echo of another era. Klemperer hits us hard with those first notes, and is slower and infinitely more strenuous than Kleiber decades later. This is sturm und drang Beethoven, weighty and insistent. Unlike either HvK or Kleiber, Klemperer is the model of measured tempi, pressing forward with a relentless and disciplined style. The orchestra responds to every nuance, though, and the performace is the farthest thing from mechanical. The Philharmonia in this era was a glorious insturment, and Walter Legge’s brilliant engineering belies the limitation of monophonic sound. The decrescendos at the end of the first movement are stunningly dynamic, the IV. finale marches along brilliantly, and the richness of the string texture is actually far more vivid than the monochromatic DGG sound in the Kleiber or later HvK. This is a 5th for purists, strong and proud.

Contrast IV: Karajan with the Philharmonia, from the same vintage. Both of these EMI mono pressings I am listening to are heavy vinyl, UK “sitting angel” labels and boom with the stunning single-mic sound Abbey Road produced in this era. My copy of the Karajan is even more astounding in the sound it’s putting out as compared to the Klemperer, and I can say that sadly the CD transfers of both do no service to the originals. Having not listened to this particular record in a while, I am also struck by what I wrote recently of HvK’s Haydn Variations from the same year: It is a distinctly English interpretation. This is an energetic, rhythmic Beethoven (a-la Kleiber) but yet dramatically attuned and connected from beginning to end, thematically and narratively linked. There is a lightness to the tempi, and a dramatic punch that differentiates from Klemperer. I end my post here with the conclusion that Karajan knew more than any other conductor on record how to blend Beethoven’s impassioned romanticism with his rhythmic dynamism, and not sacrifice one to the other. And the Philarmonia sound….it does not match Berlin’s power or profundity; but it has such vibrancy, and to hear Dennis Brain’s horn soaring above the room is a gift we are lucky to inherit. This early Philharmonia recording is an important reading, melodic and dynamic, but it still stands primarily as the precursor to the Berlin 1963.


About Jonathan Riehl

Jonathan Riehl writes and teaches communications, rhetoric, and American politics. He used to be a Republican. View all posts by Jonathan Riehl

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