Everyone thinks this is the best ever Beethoven Fifth. Er, everyone?

Everyone thinks this is the best ever Beethoven Fifth. Er, everyone?


norman lebrecht

February 21, 2020

Welcome to the 35th work in the Slipped Disc/Idagio Beethoven Edition

Beethoven: 5th symphony, opus 67 (1804-08)

In June 1975, Deutsche Grammophon released a recording of the epic fifth symphony of Beethoven with the Vienna Philharmonic, conducted by Carlos Kleiber (1930-2004). Within weeks, critics the world over were acclaiming it as the finest performance of the work ever to be recorded. There was not, as I recall, a single dissenting voice, not one reviewer who found it in parts too fast, in parts too slow, overall too uneven. There was total acclaim for the recording, an uncritical uniformity that any thinking person must surely find disturbing.

Nearly half a century later, that same unanimity prevails.

Ted Libbey writes on NPR: Kleiber gets the Vienna Philharmonic to play the Fifth as if it were a first encounter. The reading is violent, sinuous, shadowy and impassioned, the effect compelling without seeming overwrought. Kleiber presides over a gripping first movement that goes like a shot, and is to be commended for observing such musicological niceties as the exposition repeats of both the first movement and finale… this disc is to die for.
David Denby in the New Yorker: The Fifth—it’s pretty much the consensus view—is the greatest modern recording of the piece. When Mahler conducted the New York Philharmonic, in the early twentieth century, he tried to get the orchestra to play the opening chords with the proper weight. Well, with Kleiber, you certainly hear it—not just weight, but, as the movement goes on, speed, elegance of phrasing, perfect unanimity, and awesome power.

I have searched reviews in several languages and not found one wildcard, not one reviewer trying to make a name by challenging received opinion. As things stand, it is a truth universally acknowledged that Carlos Kleiber’s 1975 recording of Beethoven’s fifth symphony is ‘perfect’ (a popular, lazy accolade), or even definitive. Most on my panel chose it as one of their essential Bethoven recordings. When I asked the cellist Steven Isserlis why, he replied: ‘Because the music sounds as if that’s the way it HAS to be.’

I must have listened to the recording at least 45 times over as many years and, while I have a few personal reservations, what puzzles me is that rock-like consensus: ‘one of the most electrifying kinetic Fifths this reviewer has ever heard,’ as John Von Rhein wrote about Kleiber’s 1978 performance of the symphony with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

That ‘one of’ is pertinent. The very first review, by Richard Osborne in Gramophone magazine, called it ‘one of the most glorious accounts of the Fifth Symphony I have ever had the pleasure of hearing.’ Not definitive, not quite perfect, but a version to rival ‘Klemperer’s memorable Philharmonia recording of 1956 and Karajan’s enduringly splendid 1963 Berlin version.’ On first impression, it would seem that Carlos Kleiber was perceived as very good indeed, if not quite the best. Somehow, a legend of inviolability was manufactured down the years.

When I listen to the recording now, my breath is still taken away by the organic rightness of the opening attack, the rat-at-at-taat knock on the door that Beethoven never explains but is clearly not a visit from the lady upstairs asking if he can look after her cat while she goes out to have her hair done. It is a signifier of historic magnitude and it is no coincidence that resistants under German occupation in the Second World War should have used it as a mark of their refusal to accept the inexorability of external power.

Beethoven is, over the four years in which he wrote the symphony, a resistant to Austrian autocracy and French occupation. As the movement progresses and the motif is repeated, his anger grows at this imposition. Kleiber does rage extremely well. Almost too well. By the end of the movement he is apoplectic. I think, for reasons to be discussed below, that he goes too far.

The andante offers 70 seconds of relief before there’s another burst. This is a volcanic performance and I’m not always convinced of its necessity. The short third movement, a scherzo, is a pushback against power, a protest march led by strings and horns which somehow loses its way and winds up plucking a remniscence of the symphony’s opening theme pizziccato on the open strings, an overwhelming, original effect that fades almost to silence before, without pause, storming into a finale of swaggering survival.

Kleiber callibrates these shifts with uncanny assurance and the Vienna Philharmonic respond with some of the sweetest oboe and clarinet solos you could ever wish to hear. As a stand-alone, this is a performance of immense authority and memoraibility, certainly among the most impressive in the symphony’s history. The trouble is, it does not stand alone.


To understand what Carlos Kleiber does in the fifth symphony one has to listen to his recording against the recording of the same work made by his father, Erich Kleiber (1890-1956), at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw in 1953, a performance regarded as paramount in its time. Carlos confined his repertoire to the that his father did best. By 1974, in his mid-forties, he applied himself to four symphonies, of which the Beethoven 5th was the most central in addressing Erich’s legacy.

With Erich, the opening movement is taut and tough, the andante measured, the third movement restrained and all power reserved for the quick finale, a minute and a half faster than his son. That’s where the anger is unleashed and its intensity is quite frightening. Carlos takes his father’s anger and spreads it around the symphony, moderating it with a sheen of elegance, suppressing the psychoanalytic conclusion that this is the Oedipal anger he never succeeded in directing towards his father.

Much as I revere the Carlos performance, and much as I am fascinated by its psychological implications, it is Erich who has the more honest and convincing approach to Beethoven and Carlos who is left with complications.

You have to hear them both, side by side, on Idagio, and then turn to the alternatives, which we will examine tomorrow.

See if that doesn’t challenge the Carlos consensus.



  • A.L. says:

    I agree, almost, because this other one rests at the very summit, too. I also think Mengelberg’s is very special.


  • Beckmesser says:

    Artur Schnabel is famously quoted as saying that he only played music that was greater than any possible performance of it (he was referring to sonatas by Beethoven and Schubert). I would make an exception to this dictum to say that Carlos Kleiber’s Fifth Symphony has a rightness to it that strongly suggests the word “definitive.”

  • Bone says:

    Wow! Really enjoying the Kleiber/Concertgebouw performance. Still enjoying Carlos more…but haven’t gotten to finale yet.

  • Evan Tucker says:

    The master fifth conductor was not a Kleiber, it was Szell.


    This is the Dresden one, the recordings from Vienna, Cleveland, and Amsterdam are scarcely less great.

  • Greg Bottini says:

    Both Kleibers, father and son, excelled in their recordings of this work. I love and admire them both. My only (small) complaint is about the DGG recording of Carlos/VPO: I wish the sound was a bit less reverberant. (I own the compatible SACD issue of this – perhaps other issues are less echo-ey.) The mono Erich sounds just great on the heavy old London LP that I have.
    Three Furtwanglers should also be mentioned in a recap of my favorite Fifths: the fierce wartime BPO, the 1947 “return to conducting” live concert with the BPO (the old DGG LP of this is simply smashing), and the wonderfully balanced post-war EMI studio recording. I’ve never really warmed to his pre-war Fifths on 78s.
    Some others that I admire and have listened to many, many, times: Toscanini/NBC 1939 and 1952, Szell/Concertgebouw/stereo, and the older mono Klemperer/Philharmonia/studio recording.
    I find Mravinsky’s recording quite interesting and satisfying, as I do Mengelberg, Bernstein/NYPhil, Schuricht/Paris Conserv. Orch., Fricsay/BPO, Karajan/BPO (early 60s), and Ormandy/Philly (try it; you’ll like it!).
    I sadly but forthrightly state that it is impossible for me to listen to and admire performances of the Fifth as played by the currently living contingent of conductors with the aforementioned recordings resounding in my heart, mind and memory. The “newbies” simply just don’t have the goods.

  • Chad Hammack says:

    I first treasured the Erich Kleiber Concertgebouw version on a old Richmond album, then decades later on a remastered LP, and finally on CD, and never wavered from pretty blind loyalty to it as an incomparable interpretation, not really seriously challenged by his son’s raved-about conception, an otherwise excellent modern Fifth. The Concertgebouw at the time was technically a lesser orchestra than the VPO in the 1970s. But on the day they recorded the Fifth Symphony there must have been something almost epiphanic going on, a sort of spiritual emergency that had the musicians individually and collectively playing beyond their own capabilities. Joseph Krips once said something about Mozart’s music coming from Heaven and Beethoven’s striving for Heaven. Erich Kleiber and the Concertgebouw strive mightily, transcending their own quite adequate abilities at every turn. I still feel beatifically exhausted after listening to it. You can hear Beethoven’s palpable struggle in the sweaty, muscle-knotting musicianship, as if lactic acid is building up and cramps are exploding with every breath, mere human musicians doing something almost impossible as they somehow bring the music into a momentary incandescence that I have never heard quite equalled in terms of reach extending grasp, willing themselves to keep increasing the intensity until the very end.
    I still don’t know how they quite pulled it off. Carlos Kleiber’s version seems very streamlined and almost sanitized in comparison, although thoroughly informed by his father’s tempos.

  • Ramesh Nair says:

    Pace Mr Lebrecht’s first paragraph, I can recall one contemporary critic, American BH Haggin, who did have reservations of Kleiber fils’ tempos — mainly in the Andante. Haggin quibbled over the slight accelerando in the closing bars of this movement, which he compared unfavourably to Toscanini’s apparent steadiness of pacing. ( I can’t recall where I read this. I was in middle school at the time in New Zealand, and the review made a great impression on me as a young child, because it was the first review I ever read of this recording — ‘Kleiber impressive, mostly, but not as great as Toscanini’.) If readers turn towards Toscanini’s 1930’s recordings of the 5th, eg the April 1933 Carnegie Hall P-SON.Y. on Naxos, he does inflect the Andante with a pulsating beauty that isn’t replicated in CK’s 1975 version.

    I should note that DGG had some jiggery-pokery in their recordings of both the 5th and 7th. If you listen to the SACD transfers of this 5th [ or the widely available blu ray audio — but the Japanese SHM SACD of the CK 5th sounds overall, the best transfer to me ], it becomes apparent how the acoustic for the opening movement of the Fifth subtly differs to the acoustic perspective of the subsequent movements. It sounds slightly closer and more claustrophobic for the opening, which fits well with the minatory, disturbed emotions that well up so palpably in CK’s interpretation.

  • opilec says:

    ‘the quick finale, a minute and a half faster than his son’: only because Kleiber Sr doesn’t observe the exposition repeat – his son does.

  • Nijinsky says:

    What I’m waiting to hear is someone’s (errRR Beethoven’s any of them) variations, which I don’t know about this symphony having, but folks WHY always in linear order, or even the first part before the repeat after second part, when you’ve had the first part, and the whole rest of them to chose from!?

  • Mikael says:

    Does “definitive” mean that all the other versions are not? I’m wary of such assertions, they indicate a closed mind.

    • Tamino says:

      Definitely. Music is only ever true and thus definite in a given moment.
      It’s a desperate attempt to win over time, to call an interpretation definite.
      Plus an attempt by some, when they declare this to others, to raise themselves above others and control their perception.
      Like our lives are full of such desperate attempts, to win over time, yet it beats us all, no exceptions.

  • Sixtus says:

    Both the Erich and Carlos Kleiber versions are available for streaming and download from Apple Music, Spotify and Amazon Music (in full lossless CD-quality encoding from the latter). Note: I pay full subscription rates for these three services (they differ in some significant ways in their classical coverage) and am not a shill for them.)

  • We privatize your value says:

    Astonishing that the name Furtwängler does not appear in this context at all… But of course I agree, Erich is superior to Carlos, just as Carl Barks is superior to Don Rosa (Carlos and Don wouldn’t claim the contrary, only their fans would).

  • CYM says:

    So many great or stunning interpretations ! Last week,

    ‘SlippedDisc’ introduced me to the lesser known ‘Ensemble

    Modern’ orchestra – a revelation for me which left me

    breathless !

    Never felt so much energy, never heard so many crisp

    details from the inner texture. I was ‘glued’ to my chair,

    incapable to move, from the first notes to the last.

    I even bought 4 copies, which I am sending to my savvy

    friends … Do try this 5th !!

  • Mathias Broucek says:

    Whilst Carlos was a terrific musician, Erich was the greater individual. Unlike Carlos he championed new music (Berg, Hindemith, Hartmann), introduced new audiences to great music for the first time (I have a recording of him giving the Argentinian premiere of the St John Passion), led a major institution (Berlin Opera), helped develop new orchestras (e.g. Cologne RSO) and played a role in improving the quality of various opera houses (Covent Garden, Colon).

    Oh, and he stood up to the Nazis, the Italian Fascists AND the East German Communists!!!!

  • Ben says:

    Norman, your comparison between the father and son versions in respect of the final movement is way off. Erich’s pacing is noticeably broad in this movement, quite similar to Giulini’s version with the LAPO. Erich, unlike Carlos (and, for that matter, Carlo Maria), does not observe the repeat, which was probably usual for the time (1950s) and accounts for the shorter duration of the performance. Carlos’s pacing in this movement is pretty typical of its time – more excitable and punchy and, for that reason, not so much to my liking.

  • I prefer my father’s.

  • M McAlpine says:

    I think it’s quite impertinent to start to carp about a classic recording of the Beethoven 5 like C Kleiber dished up. It is not the only way of doing it but it is truly stupendous, one of the great recordings of the gramophone. But criticism is easy. That’s why there are so many critics!

  • Waldstein says:

    I concur with Mr. Tucker. Goerge Szell with Wiener Philharmoniker (recerded by Orfeo) is stunning!

  • David K. Nelson says:

    And we are left to wonder what Guido Cantelli would have done with the first movement had he not been killed before he could return to London to record it. The final 3 movements are on Testament SBT 1034.

  • Edgar Self says:

    It’s Furtwaengler for med, the live 1947 BPO or VPO studio for EMI. No other wil do.

  • fflambeau says:

    This is well-written and researched except for the descent into hidden psycological motivations.

    What I find appalling about this is, like so often happens in the world of art (painting) that some “expert” tells everyone else what is the best and then it becomes so not because of the fact itself, but because of the “imposition of the best”.

    The 5th is an individual thing, like most music and visual art. What is good for one might not be for another. So, my advice, it to listen yourself and choose what for you,you yourself enjoy, not have someone tell you what is “the best” with some psychobabbel added on.

  • Miguel Cervantes says:

    The Gardiner recording is the greatest. The faster tempi are the ones that Beethoven intended. The romantic gloss is removed and instead you hear the crisp, revolutionary sound that original audiences heard.

  • I guess at this point I’d go with Toscanini in 1939. The recent transfers by Pristine Audio made the case for me. The exuberance is infectious, and characteristic of the whole set that year. Carlos Kleiber’s is grim and relentless with far too many climaxes, to be sure. Diamond sharp, though. I listened to it attentively twice. Never will again.

  • Robert H says:

    It is not better than more recent performances. You can even find 1* reviews of Kleiber’s 5/7 disc on Amazon. Manfred Honeck’s with the Pittsburgh Orchestra 2014 traversal of the same works is available in SACD and is musically in the same class.

  • Michael L Morrison says:

    I just auditioned the 1953 Kleiber recording. It is wondrous. In recent years, I’ve heard the C minor symphony played by the LA Phil, once with Dudamel, probably about 2017, and just recently by a slender woman guest conductor whose name I would have to dig up.

    BEING THERE makes an enormous difference, as there’s an electricity between this most magnificent of all orchestras and an audience.

    The latter, in particular, was electrifying. I add at this point that the 1953 Concertgebouw Orchestra was magnificently powerful and precise. It may well be that 1953 mag tape and vacuum tube technology robs them of the magnificent edge.

    That said, the later of my two recent live performances absolutely blew me away. I’ve been listening to this work since 1957 (Dorati, Minneapolis). In this latest performance, the woman guest conductor started off instantly at what sounded like an insane speed, but as locals will tell you, the LA Phil eats stuff like this for breakfast, and the breakneck pace, combined with their unbelievable precision and expression, left the audience hysterical and drained.

    For me, that first movement is like being beat up in an alley, and both the 1953 Kleiber and the 2019 LA Phil bring this to life.

    The difference is: I don’t think Beethoven was done being angry, and the LA Phil finale was breakneck speed and absolutely shattering.

    Love this website.

  • Kevin Scott says:

    Save the fact that Carlos did not take the extra da capo repeat in the Scherzo (which was contested at the time of his recording and remains controversial to this day even though more conductors are embracing it, this one included), I have always found this one of the most riveting and powerful performances ever committed to disc. And after reading this report, I am listening to Erich’s performance as well. Quite powerful, quite moving and quite different when compared to his son’s, and yet it still moves one’s soul to this music.

  • Nick Schleppend says:

    Since we’re offering up our favorites, I’ll recommend Rudolf Kempe’s fifth with Munich Philharmonic. One of the highlights is how he takes time getting to the second theme in the last movement. It will make you smile.

  • Tommy Rönneholm says:

    I agree to 100%,

  • Konrad Herold says:

    In 1975 the most influential German music critic, Joachim Kaiser, called Carlos’ recording of the Fifth “a disappointment”.