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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony no.5 (1805) [35:41]
New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Leonard Bernstein (symphony)
How a great symphony was written (Illustrated talk by Leonard Bernstein, given in German, French, English and Italian)
Members of the Columbia Symphony Orchestra (illustrated talk)
rec. Manhattan Center, New York City, 25 September 1961 (symphony); Columbia 30th Street Studios, New York City, 13 July 1961 (talk)
SONY CLASSICAL GREAT PERFORMANCES 82876 78740 2 [66:03]
 

As with the Stravinsky CD I reviewed recently (see review), this issue contains music conducted by Leonard Bernstein followed by a talk discussing aspects of that music. This time it’s Beethoven, and the most celebrated of the symphonies, the fifth. In fact, the illustrated talk was recorded some five years before the symphony, at a time when Bernstein was giving full rein to his educational pursuits.
 
The talk is quite brief, and, a little frustratingly, discusses only the first movement of the symphony. It’s well worth hearing, though, for Bernstein gives a fascinating insight into the composer’s working processes. As a creative artist himself, he understood these processes well, and he drives home how the apparent inevitability of the way one idea follows another in the symphonic argument was in fact the outcome of a detailed and lengthy sifting and rejection of material and treatment. This applies even to details of the orchestration, and it is revealing to hear, for example, the famous opening with the addition, as Beethoven originally intended, of flutes to the strings. It sounds most peculiar, and one has to agree with Bernstein that the final version that we know today has far greater power of utterance.
 
I suppose that Beethoven is not a composer one immediately associates with Bernstein, as one does Mahler, Stravinsky or Copland for example. But his music meant an enormous amount to the American maestro, and one of his very last public musical acts was, famously, to conduct Beethoven’s 9th in Berlin soon after the destruction of the Wall. This 5th, though it will not be to everyone’s taste, is a performance of enormous character and commitment. For me, the first movement is the least convincing; it has a breadth and a seeming lack of urgency which is almost perverse. It is, as a performance, the diametric opposite to the Harnoncourt/Norrington school; nonetheless, on its own terms, it works, for the surge of energy which occurs in the coda has the sense of a dam bursting, of pent-up energy surging forth. There are some telling details, too, with, for example, the oboe emerging from the texture before its solo cadenza (track 1, around 5:10).
 
The Andante is beautifully done, at a serenely flowing tempo, and with flexible, expressive playing from wind and strings, despite a surprising split note from 2nd trumpet (track 2 around 3:12). The scherzo, interestingly, is on the quick side, and Bernstein emphasises the light and shade, giving the music a suitably furtive feel. And as you might expect from this most theatrical (in the best sense!) of conductors, the tense transition to the fourth movement is magnificently done, with the great crescendo held back to the very last moment carrying us into the triumphant blaze of the finale’s opening theme. And once more, Bernstein’s sheer commitment and energy keeps the momentum of this movement up to the very end, particularly impressive when – as the disc’s liner notes proudly announce – this is a performance with all the repeats in place. Well, that’s not rare these days, though it is surprising how many conductors still do omit the exposition repeat in the finale. All told, a highly successful performance, typical of the conductor in its expressive power and dynamism, but completely free of his less admirable mannerisms.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

 
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