Harnoncourt conducts Beethoven Symphonies Nos 4 & 5

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5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Ludwig van Beethoven
LABELS: Sony
ALBUM TITLE: Beethoven
WORKS: Symphonies Nos 4 & 5
PERFORMER: Concentus Musicus Wien/ Nikolaus Harnoncourt
CATALOGUE NO: Sony 88875136452

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You couldn’t have a better demonstration of the paradoxical extremes of the late conductor, Nikolaus Harnoncourt (see Obituaries, p21). The same energy and fiercely independent critical intelligence are at work in both these performances. But where one is refreshing and uplifting, the other baffles and finally infuriates.

The Fourth Symphony is as good a new version as I’ve heard in a long time. The first movement’s progress from darkness to sudden illumination is gripping, the slow movement is full of magic, drama and pathos, the Scherzo and finale overflow with vitality and wit. It’s the kind of performance that brings back the sense of discovery and surprise to a slightly over-familiar score.

There are plenty of surprises in the Fifth Symphony too, but too often they’re the kind that left me puzzled, and eventually weary. In his booklet note Harnoncourt rightly condemns metronomic rigidity, but surely the thing about rhetorical pauses is that they lose their effect the more liberally you use them. For me it all degenerates rapidly into exasperating mannerism. Normally I’m a fan of the restored long repeat in the Scherzo of Symphony No. 5. This time I groaned inwardly at the thought of having to endure the ‘ – and! – off we go’ start of the Trio section all over again. Weirdest of all is the ending, where the long rests are stretched to fantastical proportions. Why? Harnoncourt’s ‘explanation’ makes no sense at all to me.

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Stephen Johnson