> Beethoven - Symphonies Nos. 5 & 6 [JL]: Classical CD Reviews- Aug 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 5 in C Minor op. 67
Symphony No. 6 in F Major Pastoral op. 68
Berlin Philharmonic/Claudio Abbado
Recorded Berlin, May 2000
DG 471 489-2 [74:16]


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This coupling of two very different symphonies represents part of Claudio Abbado's recent Berlin Philharmonic Beethoven cycle. Much has already been said and written on the cycle, inevitably making comparisons with Abbado's Beethoven round with the Vienna Philharmonic over fifteen years ago. Broadly speaking, Abbado's Beethoven interpretations have moved from an expansive Furtwängleresque approach as a young man to those where his own personality is allowed to breathe life into the music. The consensus is that this has been a good thing and it is the Sixth Symphony on this recording that gains most.

Abbado is clearly more at home in the Pastoral than in the Fifth - as you might expect from a great conductor of Rossini and Verdi. The music trips along, the playing immaculately conveying the joy and relative relaxation that characterises the work, yet the storm is sufficiently frightening to make you dive for cover. There is a crispness and edge here which many may find preferable to the more beautiful blended sound of Abbado's predecessor: Karajan with the same orchestra

The Fifth Symphony is another matter. Not only is Abbado less at home with this rugged, obsessively driven masterpiece, but he is up against formidable opposition. Carlos Kleiber's ecstatically received recording with the same orchestra may be over twenty five years old now but for many it will still be first choice. What Kleiber achieves is irresistible excitement while maintaining structural integrity. Some conductors who go hard for excitement do structural damage while those who go for the solid structural approach can lose out on the excitement. In spite of some superb playing, Abbado's performance doesn't quite hit it off on either the excitement or the structural fronts. In a recording of just a few years ago with the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique, John Eliot Gardiner takes risks with some frighteningly speedy tempi but produces, I think, a great performance. The recordings of the Fifth that I have most recently listened to are those of Furtwängler and Toscanini which I did in reviewing a Naxos Toscanini reissue of the Fifth and Seventh from 1930s performances (http://www.musicweb-international.com /classrev/2001/Nov01/Beethoven5-7_Toscanini.htm). Toscanini's Fifth with the Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York, recorded in 1933, and Furtwänglerís with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1937, are both all-time great performances.

If I were trapped on a desert island with some splendid Hi-Fi and only Beethoven's Fifth to listen to, then I'd still choose that recording of Furtwängler's, a performance that shines through the limitations of the pre-war sound. Sixty-five years on, with the same orchestra, Abbado cannot match his conductor hero.

However, if I were only allowed the Sixth I might well choose Abbado whose recording combines a fine performance with great sound.

John Leeman

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