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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 5 in C minor, op.67 (1808)
MusicAeterna/Teodor Currentzis
rec. 2018, Großer Saal, Wiener Konzerthaus, Vienna
SONY CLASSICAL 19075884972 [30:38]

If you want drama, fury and righteous rage in your Beethoven, then you have come to the right place. Teodor Currentzis and MusicAeterna’s recording of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, recorded shortly after their presentation of it at the 2018 Proms, offers all of these particulars with a determined and often shocking vigor.

In his short notes accompanying the release, Currentzis says that he believes “that the first rule for a true immersion into Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is trying to forget what you took for granted from the history of its interpretation, and to re-examine non-negotiable solid habits of performing history.” Currentzis specifies that it is necessary to see and hear the music as “something new” in order to give the listener “the shock of the first impact that Beethoven definitely wanted, but that has been wasted in the pseudo-existential factories of recording legacy.”

And boy, does he deliver on the “something new.” I’ve heard a great many Fifths in my time, and this one indeed provides new insights and a grasp of the music I had been unable to conceive; it reminded me of the first time I heard Toscanini’s Eroica many decades ago, and the impact that recording had on me as a youngster. While it’s still quite familiar, it’s also very different and contains many moments of great impact.

The opening movement is of course an old warhorse that has been done to death. Currentzis’ rendition is highly precise, with carefully placed accents and interesting dynamic choices that offer a swirling storm of sound that is relentless. The recording offers a wonderful dynamic range. I am particularly taken by the sound of the timpani, which seems to be struck with leather-covered mallets that make it sound more like a tomtom than a traditional kettledrum. It works magnificently, integrating the timpani into the orchestral sound rather than being overbearing and separated as is commonly the case. Long-held notes frequently die away plaintively. The brief oboe solo is both languorous and heart-breaking; it’s a beautiful as you’re likely to find. I assume the strings are using gut or some kind of gut substitute (the notes are unhelpful on this point); they have a rawness and urgency that I found terribly effective, though some might be annoyed at the buzzy quality of the basses in particular. I do question the choice of a final ritard on the movement that’s certainly not in the score.

The second movement Andante con moto is quite lyrical and rendered very much in a songlike fashion. The phrasing is quite pleasing. The pizzicato supporting the main line has a delightful quality without attracting attention to itself unduly. The forte sections seem to burst with pride. The long sustained clarinet notes never get lost in the action below. The contrasts are exceptional here. As is the case in the later movements, the horns are simply delicious in their tonal quality; they rank with the finest Beethoven horns I can recall, those of the Berlin Philharmonic under Abbado. The blend of the woodwinds with the strings is quite marvelous, as they come together but are still clearly heard separately.

The prime disappointment that I have with this recording comes in the moment near the end of the second movement, as the concluding phrase that previously resolved into an A-flat chord instead rises up to an E-flat seventh like the sun bursting through the clouds. That’s one of my favorite moments in all of music, and MusicAeterna just passes it by without making much of it at all. Perhaps that’s an overreaction to standard performing practice commonly making it into a sentimental moment, but here the conventional wisdom to my mind got it right the first time.

The final two movements are everything one could want, however. The misterioso line of the basses and celli that open the third movement are not rendered as quickly as by some, but the responses are suitably jaunty and sprightly. The contrasts are spectacular. The pizzicato restatement of the opening is absolutely magical in its delivery as the instruments pass the theme to one another, building to a sumptuous climax; the crescendo into the fourth movement is excellent.

The Finale’s triumph interestingly does not emphasize the brass as happens so often. The trumpets are held back in a supporting role rather than being in the forefront. Again, the urgent rawness of the lower strings is thrilling, with a sense of the rosin burning a hole through the gut. The recording offers particularly wonderful bass extension that should give your woofers a workout. As the movement works its way to the quotation of the third movement, I was particularly struck by the sound of the woodwinds over the triplets in the strings. They are otherworldly in texture, and the reiteration of the third movement is delightful. Currentzis takes a reckless accelerando (again unmarked) in the coda, building to a thrilling finish. There is absolutely no question as to the arc of this performance.

Currentzis takes all repeats indicated by Beethoven. He does not, however, follow the recent fashion of taking the unmarked da capo in the Scherzo, which turns Beethoven’s three-part movement into a five-part one. I am in the group that believes the three-part version as played by Currentzis to be the correct interpretation, but many distinguished scholars disagree.

The running time is quite abbreviated, a bare half hour, with the symphony alone being the entirety of the release. Currentzis is apparently of the feeling that the piece should stand by itself for maximum impact, rather than being paired up with the Sixth or Seventh as is so often the case. That certainly makes sense when trying for “something new” in the interpretation as is the case here, but the buyer should be conscious that it is a rather briefer offering that one usually finds.

It’s not often that I find a recording of a Beethoven symphony that has a great impact upon me, but Currentzis has done just that with his Fifth. I eagerly look forward to his forthcoming release of the Seventh Symphony.

Mark S. Zimmer

Previous review: David Dunsmore

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