I hope you are healthy and staying reasonably sane during the quarantine! I seem to have Beethoven “on the brain” these days, as last week was to be the grand finale week of the Classix season–a concert comparing Beethoven’s first and last symphonies and featuring not only our beloved Reno Phil Chorus, but also the UNR Chamber Choir. We’ve postponed that concert until September and we are hoping that all will be safe for us to bring you a thrilling live performance at that time.
For now, since this year marks Beethoven’s 250th birthday, I thought it might be fun for us to listen to a few different interpretations of one of Beethoven’s famous works, his fifth symphony. The opening seven minutes of this symphony are, without a doubt, the best-known segment of classical music anywhere ever.
I continue to be amazed that Beethoven turned a simple four-note motif into a work so riveting and masterful that it seems to stop us in our tracks every time we hear it. In addition, it is quite challenging to perform despite the fact that it is so well-known, and it is amazingly flexible interpretively as you will hear below.
I have three videos and one audio-only recording. If you want to watch the entire symphony and not bother comparing interpretations, by all means, choose one and enjoy! If, however, you’d like to compare the first few minutes of each before choosing your favorite, it’s fascinating to hear how tempo and timing decisions can transform the character from somber to suspenseful.
Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (2011)
After listening to a bit of the Bernstein performance, go directly to the next link with Gardiner conducting. Isn’t the contrast amazing? It hardly sounds like the same piece!
John Eliot Gardiner conducting the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique (2016)
Perhaps it is because I’m a nerdy conductor in quarantine, but I find it endlessly entertaining to watch people conduct this opening and this video is a wonderful example. Gardiner’s upbeat looks like he is serving in a game of tennis and yet it is perfectly clear and the ensemble is together.
(Often conductors, myself included, do something entirely unhelpful at the beginning of this piece. My hunch is that half the time the musicians just look to the concertmaster to lead the tempo and save the day. Thank you Ruth!)
In any case, Gardiner is a brilliant interpreter of Beethoven and a wonderful conductor.
His interpretations, based on early music performance research and techniques, are full of dramatic character and fire. Even when I disagree with his choices, his interpretations are always convincing.
Daniel Barenboim conducting the West–Eastern Divan Orchestra (2012)
I love what this ensemble represents. Barenboim started this orchestra in 1999 to bring Israeli and Palestinian musicians together and it has now grown into a great conservatory for young musicians from all over the middle east.
As for the interpretation–listen to how the opening two statements of the motif are slow and then he starts a totally new tempo. I also love how I can see his phrasing as he conducts. It’s like I know where the sentences begin and end in his mind and when the tempo picks up subtly here and there, I have the sense that he is in complete control.
If you are enjoying the game, here is an early audio recording to check out that blows my mind:
Arthur Nikisch conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (1913)
The tempo fluctuates quite a lot! It’s interesting how performance traditions have changed over time. You really never hear this piece performed this way now….unless perhaps the conductor is checking his or her watch, mopping his brow, or starting to nod off!
Isn’t it incredible to think that the man who wrote this music was actually deaf? And here we are in the year of his 250th birthday forced into a global silence in terms of live performances. I take inspiration in Beethoven’s strength of musical vision, his passion, and determination to put beautiful music out into the world even if he himself couldn’t hear it.
I know everyone at the Phil is equally determined to get back to making music just as soon as we can. In the meantime, take care of yourself until we meet again!