Beethoven: Symphony No. 5

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COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: Styriarte Festival
WORKS: Symphony No. 5; Mass in C; plus making of ‘Beethoven!’ by Günter Schilhan
PERFORMER: Julia Kleiter (soprano), Elisabeth von Magnus (alto), Herbert Lippert (tenor), Geert Smits (bass); Arnold Schoenberg Choir; Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Nikolaus Harnoncourt (Styriarte Festival, Graz, 2007)
CATALOGUE NO: 002.2010


Nikolaus Harnoncourt here yokes two contemporaneous but very different works; in the conductor’s own words, Beethoven incorporated ideas of ‘piety and smoothness’ into the Mass while allowing those expressing a ‘wild mood’ to dominate the Fifth Symphony.

Harnoncourt tailors his approach accordingly, and, frankly, not to the Mass’s advantage: except for some poignant anguish in the ‘Qui tollis’ section of the Gloria and similarly dark passages, Harnoncourt tends to produce an air of pedantic calculation.

This account of the Symphony, however, is another story altogether. Heard on its own, it emerges as much more volatile, energetic, and inflected than Harnoncourt’s award-winning audio recording with the same orchestra from 1990.

However, when heard in conjunction with the second disc – which shows the conductor rehearsing this work with the orchestra (mostly in English), interspersed with brief snippets from an interview (in German) – one grasps the extent to which a detailed extra-musical programme concerning oppression, revolution, and triumph has shaped this rendition.

Harnoncourt claims that the famous opening rhythm represents ‘people in chains who want to free themselves,’ then suggests that the main theme of the second movement is a prayer, colourfully posits that the trio of the scherzo represents ‘a revolution of the students, who are idealistic but not very effective’, and so on.


His consistent aim is to encourage the orchestra not to make ‘harmless’ sounds, and his good-humoured yet resourceful way of bringing his programme to life deserves both attention and respect. David Breckbill