ambitious conductors, the Beethoven Fifth Symphony is an inescapable rite of
passage. The opening gesture, a four-note motto (one can hardly call it a theme)
is, as one critic observed, the musical equivalent of "To be or not to be."
And given that familiarity, that store of cultural baggage, listeners come to
any performance of the work with the highest expectations. More importantly, by
recording the best-known work in the entire orchestral repertory, a conductor
puts him or herself in direct competition with several of the greatest
interpreters of the 20th Century: Furtwangler, Toscanini, Catelli,
Erich and Carlos Kleiber, among them.
MTT has recorded this work before, as part of a
cycle of the complete symphonies with the English Chamber Orchestra. Those
historically informed performances made use of the kind of chamber-sized
ensemble Beethoven would have been familiar with, but were played on modern
instruments. In the present instance, MTT unashamedly deploys a full modern
orchestra, and tears into the music with all the weight and force at his
disposal. The earlier recording was compelling in its way, insightful, but
rather diffident; this live San Francisco Beethoven Fifth is something else
again — a performance that can proudly take its place with the greatest
recordings ever made.
Characteristically, MTT's approach strikes a perfect balance between the heat of the moment and the structural needs of the whole. For the most part, his tempos are on the fast side, bristling at times, but without any loss of expressive detail. There's a sense of explosive force, of headlong momentum, but MTT is flexible enough to provide for emotional shading and dramatic contrast. Propulsive, intense, and structurally unified, the first movement builds to its mighty climax in an altogether natural way.
What most impressed Beethoven's contemporaries
about his shocking new symphony was the organic nature of the work he'd
created. Previously a symphony had been comprised of four separate, albeit
related, movements. In the Fifth, Beethoven created a work that was in every way
a carefully devised whole. MTT's great achievement here is to give us exactly
that: a performance that sounds, from its first moment to its last, inevitable. "The enormous blaze of the triumphant finale"
(Tovey's words) is all the
more electrifying given that MTT has been working toward it from the beginning
(and without any trace of deliberateness). Though played by a modern orchestra,
MTT's textures are utterly transparent. Few period-instrument performances
have done a better job of revealing the lean, severe orchestration Beethoven
employs in the Fifth.
The performance of the Fourth Concerto is just as
exalted. MTT and Emanuel Ax are sympathetic collaborators, and they passionately
represent the two contrasting moods of this work: its rough-hewn assertiveness
and its hypersensitive inwardness. Orpheus has never tamed the beasts with more
heart-felt lyricism. And the last movement is played with an infectious
spontaneity that is entirely winning. I've always admired Emanuel Ax as an
artist, but number few of his recordings among my favorites. That's not the
case any more. This Fourth Concerto is now my preferred version of the work.
The sound is demonstration quality, on a par with
the remarkably high standard set by MTT's recently completed Mahler series.
So, let's see what we have here: performances so fresh-sounding they'll make
you forget how many times you've heard these works before, and thereby remind
you of why they're so absolutely essential — in breathtakingly realistic
sound. So what are you waiting for? You need to get on line and order this disc