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Beethoven: Symphonies 5 & 7 / Thielemann, Philharmonia

Release Date: 03/11/1997 
Label:  Deutsche Grammophon   Catalog #: 449981   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Ludwig van Beethoven
Conductor:  Christian Thielemann
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Philharmonia Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 16 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

In a notebook entry dated 1951, during one of his many fulminations against the newly fashionable literalism in the interpretation of the music of Bach and Beethoven, Furtwangler addresses the issue of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. “Is this the classical composer? Not a Romantic, at any rate. It has nothing to do with these historical concepts. It is the sculptor, or rather the dramatist, who is speaking here. Everything is development, everything is revealed in the course of the action. So what is one to say to those who turn this fertile action into a comfortable account of things, who hide behind literal rendering (their own ignorance)?” To which he replies, “Nothing can quite emerge during a
Read more performance that was not ‘there to start with’, already in the mind of the performer.”

I mention this politically incorrect but thoughtful entry not because Christian Thielemann’s account of the Fifth Symphony in any way resembles or mimics the searching and surprisingly ‘central’ account of the symphony Furtwangler recorded for HMV in 1937 (now on Biddulph) or the astonishingly fiery one he made live in 1943 (now on Music & Arts); but because the remark “it is the sculptor, or rather the dramatist, who is speaking here” is one which I suspect the 37-year-old Berliner may already have raised in gold letters over his music-room door.

In recent years, only someone like Celibidache would have dared sculpt and dramatize a Beethoven symphony as Thielemann does here; and no one since Karajan has dared employ such a weight and depth of sound. It is all gloriously unfashionable: as subversive, and in some respects as timely, as Jennifer Paterson and Clarissa Dickson Wright of Two Fat Ladies fame retiring to the terrace to light a welcoming cigarette after cooking an unusually cholesterol-rich dinner.

But do the old recipes still work? Up to a point. Thielemann treats the two symphonies as epic dramas forged in verses of Miltonic grandiloquence and Blakean mien. Tempos are measured, textures dark-hued. The first movement of the Seventh Symphony has the steadiness, weight and propulsive force of late Klemperer; the first movement of the Fifth is nearer to the pace and style of Klemperer’s celebrated 1955 recording. That said, Klemperer is not an exact analogy since Thielemann modifies the tempo for dramatic effect in a way that Klemperer would never countenance. In the last two movements of the Fifth Symphony, where Klemperer’s tempos are merely the different manifestations of a single all-informing pulse, Thielemann adopts tempos that spell out, fracture, and then, by apparent force of will, reassemble the music’s constituent elements.

In the first movement of the Seventh Symphony, Thielemann intensifies the drama and darkens the mood by rendering the transitions utterly abject: the transition to the development broods, the start of the coda glowers like the pit of Acheron. The music can be made to dance (the rhythmic projection of the scherzo of the Seventh Symphony is a delight). But, elsewhere, there is the feeling that these are the dithyrambs of desperate men.

The slow movements glower, too. The slow movement of the Seventh Symphony should do just that, for what is this but a funeral march posing as a country stroll? But the music Beethoven wrote for the slow movement of the Fifth Symphony is amiable enough in all conscience, an Andante con moto that deserves less lugubrious treatment than we have here, plausible as it sounds in the context of the reading as a whole. (Only Bruno Walter, in my experience, is as slow; and to no better effect, for all Walter’s care over dynamic shading and the subtle elisions of instrumental voices.)

The Philharmonia, for the most part, respond powerfully to Thielemann’s demands. They can summon at will the kind of Götterdämmerung-like sonority he requires: a full-bodied, dark, romantic sound to which the layouts (antiphonally divided first and second violins after the manner of Klemperer, Kubelik and the impossible-not-to-recommend Carlos Kleiber) give added space and dramatic thrust. The recordings are very immediate, with the acoustic of All Hallows, Gospel Oak adding a certain reverberative frisson not unlike that of the church in Berlin where DG more regularly make their recordings.

The production is not perfect. At the first fermata of the Scherzo of the Fifth Symphony there is a strange whistle, like the distant sound of a double-decker bus drawing to a stop. More than once, the pulse lurches oddly, suggesting that matching up takes was not easy. One wonders, indeed: has Thielemann yet fully mastered the art of returning absolutely to his given tempo? Some will suggest not, and go on to draw the larger conclusion that the performances themselves are little more than stage bluster, barnstorming imitations of the old masters.

Even if that is so – and I am by no means convinced that that would be at all a fair assessment – the performances undoubtedly have the merit of affording us relief from the grip of historicist dogma against which Furtwangler so passionately inveighed.

--Gramophone Magazine Read less

Works on This Recording

Symphony no 5 in C minor, Op. 67 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Conductor:  Christian Thielemann
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Philharmonia Orchestra
Period: Classical 
Written: 1807-1808; Vienna, Austria 
Date of Recording: 07/1996 
Symphony no 7 in A major, Op. 92 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Conductor:  Christian Thielemann
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Philharmonia Orchestra
Period: Classical 
Written: 1811-1812; Vienna, Austria 
Date of Recording: 07/1996 

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