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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 4 in B flat major, Op.60 (1806) [33:37]
Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op.67 (1807) [32:36]
Minnesota Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä
rec. Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA, 30 April 2004 (Symphony No. 4); 1 May 2004 (Symphony No. 5)
BIS SACD 1416 [67:03]
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What triggers our interest in ‘serious’ music? Quite often, I guess, it’s a film or - perish the thought - a TV advertisement, or something overheard on the car radio. Usually, some musical plum or meringue, which means less and less to us as we ‘mature’. My earliest musical friends seemed always to follow the same route - from the Nutcracker, Finlandia or the Ride of the Valkyries ‘outwards’. But not me!

My Damascus Road experience was Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony. Not the violin or clarinet tunes of the slow movement, or the bustling energy of its finale, but two transitions in the first movement. The passage of staccato unison minims, rising chromatically out of the canonic second theme towards the tutti which rounds off the exposition. And second, the magical transition linking the pianissimo climax of the development to the inspired moment of recapitulation, in which Beethoven slips from the remote key of F sharp into the ‘home’ key of B flat by the divinely simple use of an enharmonic pun, the timpani’s A sharp (the leading note of the ‘leaving’ key) becoming - unnoticed! - B flat, the tonic note in the ‘arriving’ key. I guess that tells you something about me. These are ‘nuts and bolts’ moments of no real melodic or even thematic significance, but moments of wonderful drama and mystery! Life has never been the same since, and this sublime music has always maintained a special place in my affections.

I’m not sure why I burden you with this very personal recollection. Partly, I suppose, because Classic fM - and the modern trend towards the ‘Greatest of This and That’ - encourage us to indulge in moments, moods and melodies, rather than the architecture of a piece, or the fuller picture which is painted when we hear a whole piece, rather than mere bits of it. I know of people who know the Fifth Symphony’s first movement who reckon they know Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony! But they’ve never experienced the life-changing half-hour sea-crossing from C minor darkness into C major light (a C-crossing!) of which that first movement is but a portion.

The best Beethoven performances pace themselves, and take an overview. The map is as important as the journey. Every great moment needs to be relative to another - no detail assuming unjustifiable prominence, no climax being assigned undue weight. Vänskä’s conducting is up there with the best. It’s true that there are alternatives in the catalogue which deliver more weight, more incisive articulation, more youthful energy, more unanimous ensemble, perhaps even more outright beauty. But few that are more loyal to (more revealing of) the wholeness of Beethoven’s conception.

In the Fourth, Gardiner (on original instruments) is explosively dynamic. Likewise Zinman, who - on modern instruments - is extraordinarily agile: and he ornaments some slow movement wind solos daringly but persuasively. Vänskä, you could argue, is uncontroversial, and a safer choice for everyday listening. He is unobtrusive without being anonymous. The slow introduction to his first movement is superbly atmospheric, imparting an impressive sense of forthcoming occasion - like the overture to an opera. And the main body of that same movement grows compellingly, with every building brick in its rightful place. The third and fourth movements are not remotely hard-pressed, providing excitement through enhanced rhythmic clarity rather than relentless forward drive. (Interestingly, you may have noticed, his Fourth is longer than his Fifth!)

I’ve been guilty of holding the classic Kleiber Fifth (surely one of the great recordings - of any music - of all time?) in such high regard as to consider it definitive. But the notion of a ‘definitive’ performance of such music is dangerous. Kleiber conducts this music like a Churchillian oration - as if our lives depend on it, as if a message for all humanity and all time. It’s a performance of near-desperation - overwhelmingly weighty and dynamic. On the other hand, Harnoncourt - and what a wonderful cycle his is! - asks less of his COE players, moving from staging post to staging post, speaking with tremendous conviction, but without impatience. Likewise Mackerras, another admirable cycle, whose middle-of-the-road Liverpool readings are intelligent - powerful, without being oppressive.

The Abbado-Berlin and Rattle-Vienna sets are the nearest thing, stylistically, to Vänskä - modern instrument performances illuminated by ‘modern’ thinking. The almost equally impressive Davis-Dresden and Barenboim-Berlin sets are (dare I say it?) more old-fashioned - musical, well-considered and well-played, but slightly ponderous and heavyweight, in the Klemperer-Furtwängler mould.

These Minnesota performances are ‘zoom lens’ performances where the conductor allows us to see the wide-angle whole as well as the telephoto detail. They’re as good as any in the catalogue - as long as you don’t want your Beethoven breaking records!

Peter J Lawson

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