Saturday, December 13, 2008

Beethoven: Symphony #5 and a "Temporal Comparison" of the Berlin Phil

"Beethoven brought three startling innovations to music: first, he altered our very conception of the art by emphasizing the psychological element implicit in the language of sounds. Secondly, his own stormy and explosive temperament was, in part, responsible for a dramatization of the whole art of music....

Both of these elements--the psychological orientation and the instinct for drama--are inextricably linked in my mind with his third and possibly most original achievement: the creation of musical forms dynamically conceived on a scale never before attempted and of an inevitability that is irresistible."

--Aaron Copeland, from David Dubal's The Essential Canon of Classical Music

We return to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony to give a close listen to an alternate performance of this exceptional classical music.
Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic
Beethoven (1770-1827)
Beethoven: Symphonies 5 & 8 / Fidelio Overture
Deutsche Grammophon, 1977

And this recording, done by the Berlin Philharmonic in 1977, is a good one, although not perfect. Already in the first minute and a half of the first movement you can hear intonation problems in the woodwind section, and from the clarinet in particular. And the Berlin Philharmonic isn't in a tight unison when they play many of this symphony's syncopated parts. Even some of the "dut dut dut dahhs" in the early in the first movement sound muddy.

But these are relatively minor criticisms. I've argued before that if you are starting to collect some works of classical music and you are concerned that you might inadvertently buy a bad recording of something, don't worry. As long as you choose a recording done by a major symphony (e.g.: US cities big enough to have a major pro sports team, or any major European city), you will be happy with your purchase.

Listener notes for Beethoven's Fifth Symphony:
Just one lengthy listener note today, where I'll compare today's recording of the Fifth to another recording of the Fifth that I wrote about earlier this year.

We've discussed before in this blog what a great pleasure it is to compare different recordings of a favorite symphony. Usually the comparison will be between two different orchestras playing the same work, for example when we compared the acceptable but imperfect Philadelphia Orchestra's performance of Brahms' Symphony #2 to a cleaner and more consistent performance by the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

But today, I get to compare this 1977 CD to an alternate recording of the Fifth made eight years later by the same orchestra, and directed by the same conductor. And what's most surprising is that the two versions are surprisingly, even shockingly, different.

The 1977 recording seems staid, orderly, restrained and seriously underpowered. Conductor Herbert Karajan hardly deviates from any of the set tempos. The brass section, and indeed the entire orchestra, seems to lack a foundation, as the lower brass simply don't have a big enough sound to support the rest of the ensemble.

Nothing makes a symphony sound more powerful than having monster trombone and tuba players on your payroll--unfortunately, the Berlin Philharmonic (at least in 1977) clearly didn't have that advantage. In fact, after I finished listening to this symphony, I wanted to go out and buy a copy of Beethoven's Fifth done by the Chicago Symphony so I could hear how an orchestra with a real brass section would perform this work.

The 1984 recording is a stark contrast from the 1977 version. Karajan takes many more liberties with both tempo and with the dynamic range (the loudness and softness) of the performance. He brings out the "big" parts much more. It's almost as if over the eight years since the 1977 recording Karajan took some Leonard Bernstein pills and became a much more theatrical composer.

And, for whatever reason, the lower brass have far more power in the 1984 recording, despite the fact that it's likely that the musicians playing on this recording are likely the same people that played in the orchestra in 1977. Perhaps the recording engineers did a better job with microphone placement for the 1984 taping. Or perhaps the low brass sounded muffled in the 1977 recording because the source tape is analog (the 1984 recording is all digital). Or, perhaps they got rid of the wimps from the 1977 orchestra and replaced them with real men with real lungs. It's anyone's guess.

All of these differences combine to make the 1984 version the more suspenseful and emotionally charged rendering of Beethoven's Fifth. And if you read the quote from Aaron Copeland at the beginning of this post, you can see that suspense, drama and powerful emotion is precisely what Beethoven offers us in his symphonies. I never want to hear this symphony played in a suppressed or repressed manner. I'd rather hear it played to the hilt.

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