Beethoven - Symphony No. 1 & 5

Beethoven’s most iconic work has probably suffered from a surfeit of outings in its 200-year history. It is rare indeed to find a performance of the fifth symphony where the ink still seems wet on the page.

LSO Live appears to offer yet another reading with what ought to be a mellow-sounding symphony orchestra.  The forces and instruments used for this recording aren’t period in any sense.  Haitink is not a follower of the authentic movement, and the LSO is a suavely 20th century vehicle.  How to explain, then, why this startling performance reclaims the spirit of 1808? 

For a start this version has the kind of rhythmic precision rarely achieved at Beethovenian tempi on conventional instruments – and Haitink’s speeds are at the upper end.  Every rhythmic fragment hits home, brilliantly realising the motivic genesis of the first movement in particular. The dynamic extremes are also sharply defined and there is string playing of extraordinary energy, though with a natural absence of vibrato at key points.   Throughout we hear timpani playing of incision and cracking force, whilst a dryish acoustic adds clarity.  Stylistically it feels spot on, though without a gut string or a valveless horn in sight.  The ensemble of the LSO is so taut it belies the size of the orchestra (whose strings are only one desk down from full strength).  

Haitink once described the orchestra as a horse the conductor must somehow ride.  He is up in his stirrups for most of this Beethoven 5, and the beast is a willing, magnificent one.  In fact, Napoleon would have been pleased to be seen on it.

The recording is cleverly paired with the Symphony No 1.  Eight years separate the two works, and it’s interesting to see where the ground-breaking qualities of No 5 begin.  The orchestral sonority is already deepened, the symphonic formula dramatised, mannerisms of contemporaries wittily assimilated.  The Minuet and Trio of the third movement is really nothing of the kind, being too fast, too violent and too syncopated. Symphony No 1 is  boldness applied to familiar fare – which might also sum up Haitink’s Beethoven for LSO Live.

James Mallinson, LSO Live Producer

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