When Beethoven’s Fifth split down the middle

When Beethoven’s Fifth split down the middle


norman lebrecht

February 23, 2020

Welcome to the 37th work in the Slipped Disc/Idagio Beethoven Edition

Beethoven: 5th symphony (part 3)

With the coming of stereo at the end of the 1950s, performance of the Beethoven symphonies split down the middle – traditional, large orchestras to one side, small ensembles and period instruments to the other.

It took a while for the period pack to reach Beethoven. They spent the 60s in Haydn and the 70s in Mozart before anyone dared to address the big B. I think Monica Huggett and her Hanover Band – the LP cover said ‘on original instruments’ might have been first. Recorded at All Saints Church in Tooting, London, in May 1983, it’s an unusually clean performance for its time with few cracks in the valveless horns and good ensemble throughout. Huggett, primarily a violinist, was also concertmaster for Ton Koopman at the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra. The adventurous recording label was Nimbus.


Four years later, the much more famous Christopher Hogwood and his Academy of Ancient Music released Beethoven’s fifth on Decca, with less of a bang than a whimper. The tempi are unconvincing and the string quality sandpapery. Neither the original pitch nor Hogwood’s direction sets the imagination afire and some passages in the finale practically dissemble before our ears.

Roger Norrington with the London Classical Players in 1988 is far more subtle, thoughtful and introspective. This might be the quietest Beethoven Fifth ever made and the speeds are slow slow at times that the texture becomes transparent and one glimpses effects never heard before – like land exposed by a receding sea. It lacks the sweep of a Walter or a Szell, but the experience is nonetheless rewarding.

Nothing subtle about Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique in 1994. This Panzer approach to Beethoven, with all guns blazing, is unquestionably exciting so long as you’re not about to get rolled over by the advancing tanks. Where the rush comes unstuck is in the second movement, which ought to arouse feelings of affection and sounds more like rape. Several on our panel pick Gardiner as their first choice. The playing is first-class.

Frans Brüggen with the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century (1992) offers a measured counterpoint, a pastoral narrative. Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1990), with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, is so unfussy as to be almost prosaic, although the symphony wakes up in due course. For a sugar-free, vegan approach, try Jos van Immerseel and Anima Eterna Brugge (2008).

Meanwhile, mainstream conductors were stealing the early-music movement’s clothes. Simon Rattle with the Vienna Philharmonic and, more consistently David Zinman with the Zurich Tonhalle orchestra were preaching period practice and tempi for performance on modern instruments. Zinman’s cycle is the most impressive of its time and his account of the fifth symphony is darkly memorable.

Among the unreconstructed big-band practitioners, Sir Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony stand out for sheer vigour and vitality. Chicago, in Solti’s heyday, was the loudest orchestra in America and the conductor’s impetus brooked no resistance. Not for Solti the arguments of period authenticity. ‘Why should I prefer replica 19th century instruments that were made the week before last to the finest valve horns of the 19th century?’ he once demanded. His symbiosis with Chicago was founded on mutual underdog perceptions. Chicago resented its secondary cultural status to New York and Solti was infuriated by record critics who referred to him as ‘second only to Karajan’.

In the fifth symphony, recorded in 1975, these sentiments coalesced into a performance of massive power and beauty, a paradigm of one of the great conductor-orchestra partnerships. Every single one of the principal players is world class.


Among later interpreters, Mariss Jansons with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, on Japan tour in 2012 stands out for clarity and cohesion. Jansons spent hours adjusting the placement of seats in the orchestra, a millimetre to the right or left, to achieve the exact blend of sound that he wanted to hear. The playing standard is the highest in Germany outside Berlin, and is raised a notch or two on tour as the orchestra competes in Suntory Hall for yen supremacy – a match-winning performance.

So – final pairings for the Fifth Symphony, in order of opposites:

Erich and Carlos Kleiber, in that order

Nikisch and Richard Strauss

Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer

Furtwängler and Karajan – both 1954

Huggett and Norrington

Solti and Jansons.

If you’re the type of person who never drives without a safety-belt or leaves the house without pushing the door twice, you may find kindred souls in the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra’s conductor-free performance of October 2012. On the other hand, you might just loosen a couple of buttons on your shirt and decide to live a little.


  • Evan Tucker says:

    Gardiner last night did the fifth of a lifetime at Carnegie Hall, the greatest live Beethoven I’ve ever heard, during what otherwise so far has been a not particularly distinguished Beethoven cycle this week. 6-9 left, hopefully less like that awful, robotically automated 2 he did and more like that cosmic 5th.

    • Monsoon says:

      Agreed about Gardiner’s 5th the other night. As Neal Zaslaw once put it to me, Beethoven wasn’t a composer who made his point subtly in his symphonies, and least of all in the 5th — it should be exuberant and blazing. The theatrically of the brass and winds standing at the start of the 4th movement was a nice touch.

      I actually thought that the 2nd was pretty good. The third lacked a level of needed precision.

      • Evan Tucker says:

        I decided to trade in the second half of the cycle to see Fischer who is much more consistent. After such a great 5th I didn’t want to tempt fate and wait another couple symphonies on the off-chance we’d hear something else amazing.

        I think the standing isn’t just theatrical, though it does provide an added level of theatricality, it both has a demonstrable acoustic effect that better lets them cut through the string sound into the audience. It also uninhibits the musicians, they suddenly have a little bit of ambulatory freedom and the extra visceral element comes through.

        I generally quite liked their Eroica, rather different and more flexible than Gardiner’s famous (and famously rigid) recording. The rest was still much too fast and chipper, but the only part that struck me as truly great was the finale, when Gardiner (shockingly) ditched B’s metronome and created something so bass-heavy and peasante that it was almost Klempererish.

  • Mustafa Kandan says:

    Chicago’s orchestra was indeed loud under Solti. I wonder how they sound today, after years of working under Haitink, Barenboim & Muti.

    • NYMike says:

      The brass principals of Solti’s era are gone. Their absence leaves a quieter orchestra.

      • Jerome Hoberman says:

        Jay Friedman’s still there, isn’t he?

        • Tromba in F says:

          Yes, Jay is still there and sounds great. He has thus far defied the fate of a couple of the other longtime principals who, sadly, overstayed their time just a bit and finished their careers with somewhat scrappy results. My take, as an orchestral brass player, is that the CSO brass started to tone it way down during Chris Martin’s time as principal trumpet. The entire brass section adopted a far less aggressive approach and, to me, a much more blended sound from top to bottom. They seemed to adopt a more complementary role within the sound of the orchestra and less of an “us vs. them” approach. I look forward to hearing how the section reinvents itself once again with the new principal trumpet on board.

  • Greg Bottini says:

    So, Norman, your “final pairings” for the Fifth Symphony of Beethoven include Solti and Huggett but not Toscanini?
    You cannot be serious.

  • Ricardo says:

    The one time I played under Solti, during a quick visit of his to the Eastman School in 1985 (I think! – maybe 1986…) it was playing Beethoven’s fifth. My lingering memory of Solti was that he had a beat of steel, unlike that of any other conductor I have ever worked with.

    • Bardolph says:

      Yes, that was a rather swift and edged performance, impressive.
      The occasion was the granting of an honorary doctorate to George Solti, 1986, I believe. On a weekday morning, and only about one or two dozen people attended. And, luckily, I was one of them. Sorry, just got carried away a bit…

  • Louis says:

    There must be hundreds of recordings of this work, so inevitably any discussion will omit someone’s favourite. I would like to add three modern ones (from complete cycles) to the mix:
    1. Emmanuel Krivine conducting La Chambre Philharmonique is an excellent period instrument recording with most of the virtues and few of the vices of the ones you have mentioned.
    2. Adam Fischer conducting the Danish CO on Naxos is usually interesting if occasionally frustrating.
    3. Riccardo Chailly conducting the Leipzig Gewandhaus is fiery and superbly played and recorded. Yes, Chailly does not ‘smell the flowers’ along the way, but it is an exciting ride. An update on Solti perhaps?

    Of the recordings you discuss, I do have and very much like the Jansons. Zinman does not split his violins and, for me, has become less enjoyable on repeated listenings. Harnoncourt re-recorded the 5th with his period instrument orchestra, Concentus Musicus Wien, not long before he died – a provocative performance if not necessarily a library choice (a personal view).

  • Amos says:

    The CSO under Solti was a great orchestra and imo recordings like their Liszt Faust demonstrated it. Unfortunately too often every composer sounded similar and the piece in question a concerto for brass band and orchestra. As for Beethoven performed with period instruments, I recall reading that Rattle called HvK and proposed it. The latter responded by merely hanging up the phone.

  • Ed says:

    What about Michael Gielen?

  • David Sanders says:

    Solti’s first recording of the Beethoven 5th with the CSO was done in May, 1974, a month before I joined the orchestra. The second recording was done in October, 1986.

  • Edgar Self says:

    A survey of Beethoven Fifth recordings without Furtwaengler is to have “Hamlet” without the prince.

    • Barry says:

      You missed it. Norman included Furtwangler in the second volume. Although I disagreed with his selection of Furtwangler performances. I would go with the live BPO performances from May or ’47 and ’54.

  • Michael Wilkinson says:

    Martin Haselbock and his Orchester Wiener Akademie give a formidable and thrilling period experience (coupled with the Pastoral) on their very recent recording (Alpha 479). it would be a pity if this one slipped under the radar.

  • Augustine says:

    Your Solti link brings up Zinman

  • Larry says:

    I just heard Bernard Haitink’s Fifth with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, done around 1990. Absolutely fantastic!!

  • Stoneboy says:

    What about Cleveland and George Szell?

    • Petros Linardos says:

      Wonderful. Concertgebouw/Szell (Philips) is even better, perhaps one of the greatest recordings of Beethoven’s 5th.

      • David K. Nelson says:

        And the bonus of Szell/Concertgebouw on Philips is that the flip side of the LP has Mozart’s Symphony in C No. 34, K. 388. It becomes my favorite Mozart symphony — but only when hearing this particular recording. It is a miracle of a performance.

    • Larry W says:

      The Cleveland Orchestra with Szell is unsurpassed and rarely equalled. IMO, any list without this recording has limited validity.

  • JG says:

    I’m sure most readers will agree what a stimulating and carefully considered few posts these have been: thank you, Norman, and resident experts. Beethoven’s 5th: news that stays news, as E.M. Forster pre-emptively reminded us in Howards End over a century ago (‘But the goblins were there. They could return. He said so bravely, and that is why one can trust Beethoven when he says other things.’)

    Not everything can be covered. I wonder what readers make of recent recordings by Manfred Honeck and Ivan Fischer? A shame we don’t yet have the new Currentzis – but is Sony serious about issuing it at full price, without coupling, as current listings imply? That might have been good enough, going full circle, for Kleiber and the Vienna Philharmonic on LP in 1975, but really…?

  • Orin says:

    Mention of Chicago, a great orchestra — why are only principal players designated “world class”?
    All musicians go through rigorous audition procedures, and then a 2-year tenure review.
    Sometimes one wonders at the disregard for “rank and file” members of an orchestra…there are many factors which create great orchestras/performances, including the invisible thread that unites everyone in an orchestra— it makes possible the minute adjustments every second during a performance (or rehearsal) that enable musicians to provide each other perfect ensemble regardless of what the conductor does. My respect will forever be given to the united souls of an orchestra who often play far better than even the most well-intentioned conductor can indicate. This means principals, associates and tutti players who combine their gifts to make something unique, special and different every time they play.

  • since your title here is “WHEN BEETHOVEN’S FIFTH SPLIT DOWN THE MIDDLE” I just have to add this shameless plug about when my baton split in half during Beethoven’s 5th as you reported here:
    Such a daunting piece to conduct with so many great performances in our past!

  • fred says:

    Several years back a musical notation by Lodewijk van Beethoven (the revered grandfather)was found in some church archive or something in Mechelen. That musical snippet contained what Norman calls “the rat-at-at-taat knock on the door”…So maybe there was a slight of Flemishness after all in grandson Ludovicus which the Flemish expert (rightly so) judges as ridiculous…But still good to know the grandfather’s influence extended by far the “I take his portrait with me any time I travel”

  • Kevin Scott says:

    One matter that was not discussed was the repetition of the Scherzo and Trio that was considered controversial when Pierre Boulez recorded it for Columbia in the early 1970s, turning the three-part Scherzo into a five-part one. I’m sure many listeners were appalled when they heard Boulez doing this, thinking that the doyen of modernism wanted to “perfect” Beethoven by doing this. Little did we know that this addition would later dominate the period-instrument recordings that are all mentioned here, but also carried into modern-instrument ones as well, such as those by Blomstedt, Suitner, Masur (NYPO recording), Abbado (Berlin), Zinman and several others, while many other conductors chose the traditional route of sticking to what Beethoven composed…or did he?

    Beethoven introduces this five-part scherzo in the fourth symphony, and continues it in the sixth and seventh symphonies, so why would he abandon this in the Fifth? One could surmise that Beethoven changed his mind, but in reading the correspondence with his publisher, did Beethoven decide to make it a three-part (A-B-A’) or contested the publisher’s will to make it three part and forego Beethoven’s instructions to keep it as a five-part (A-B-A-B-A’) one?

  • Greg in Chicago says:

    Kleiber, VPO? Just saying . . .

  • David R. Moran says:

    but which one does the opening as written? —

    [breathless beat] and-two-and-ONE!

  • Yi Peng Li says:

    Could you add Mackerras’s Scottish version and Antonini’s Kammerorchester Basel version to your consideration? I’m not sure they’ve showed up in your surveys so far. Antonini might be noteworthy for the way that the different sections inflect the four-note motto differently. When the horns hijack the motto in the secondary subject, they don’t sound dour, but are more playful and still forceful.