Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1828)
Symphony No. 5 in C minor Op 67 Introduction [28:00] Performance [36:16]
Professor Wulf Konold (speaker)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Claudio Abbado
rec. live, Academia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Rome, 2001
NTSC all regions; 16:9
subtitles for documentary in English, German, French and Spanish
EUROARTS 2056028 DVD [67:00]

The cover of the box announces boldly that this DVD is “Introducing Beethoven Symphony No 5”. I would imagine that readers of this site are likely to have been introduced already, and may indeed feel that they are so familiar with the work, and possibly also the performers, that they would gain little from this DVD. That may be so, but I suspect that the proportion of the wider population who can claim to know more than the initial motto of the work is depressingly low today, and anything that is likely to increase the number who really know it is very much to be encouraged.

The documentary with which the disc opens begins with some historical information about the work. Excerpts from the Symphony play in the background, and sometimes with the performers also visible, below the speech. This is irritating as it is likely to encourage just the sort of casual background listening that the disc as a whole should discourage. The best parts of the documentary are the explanations by Wulf Konold. Sitting at a piano and speaking in German (with English subtitles) this is yet another vindication of the simple power of the “talking head” approach. He simply explains briefly and elegantly the structure and originality of the Symphony, occasionally throwing out remarks that resonate in the mind afterwards and do give a deeper understanding of the work. Extracts from the performance are included with relevant parts of the score shown on the screen. Perhaps it would be better for those with limited score-reading knowledge to have the old pantomime-style ball running along the notes, and, better still, for longer extracts to be included with the score visible. From time to time other voices, including a narrator, are used, mainly for biographical information. This is less interesting and not always relevant but does not greatly reduce the likely overall effectiveness of the documentary for anyone unfamiliar or with limited familiarity with the Symphony.

The performance follows, and I am tempted to think that the disc might be worth having for that alone. Abbado’s long experience with the work is shown not merely by the lack of a score or the almost instinctively elegant and eloquent way in which he deals with various passages notoriously difficult to conduct - Norman Del Mar’s book on conducting the Beethoven Symphonies explains this at length, but by the way in which he clarifies the textures and structure of the work. There is never any doubt that this is music whose relatively brief length gives no clue to its impact or importance. The performance is direct and powerful. The orchestra, looking at times alarmingly young, give of their best and the sound is never less than satisfactory even if some of the woodwind do display irritating mannerisms while playing. I could have done with more restraint in cutting of views around the orchestra, often for no obvious musical reason, but I have seen much worse. Even if the documentary may not work for the newcomer in introducing the greatness of the work then this performance certainly will.

John Sheppard

Even if the documentary may not work for the newcomer in introducing the greatness of the work then this performance certainly will.