Beethoven: Symphony No. 5; Piano Concerto No. 4

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COMPOSERS: Beethoven
WORKS: Symphony No. 5; Piano Concerto No. 4
PERFORMER: Emanuel Ax (piano); San Francisco Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas


To decide on this recording I listened to 50 versions of the first movement of the Fifth Symphony, the first recorded 98 years ago. It’s astonishing how widely interpretations can vary, but if we confine ourselves to the period when sound is of reasonably high quality, then I would say that Erich Kleiber, Furtwängler, Carlos Kleiber and this performance lead the field. Michael Tilson Thomas’s interpretation is free of any mannerism, but it is alive in every bar, full of passion, and marvellously played and recorded. A work which can lead to feelings of having been listened to, or anyway heard, too often, blazes from the speakers and defies one to feel familiar with it. To achieve that at this stage is an astonishing achievement.


Piano Concerto No. 4, which is almost as familiar, had its public premiere at the same concert where the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies had theirs – as well as other pieces by Beethoven. So it is appropriate that it should be on this disc. In some ways it is even harder to make it sound fresh. Certainly it isn’t a good idea to spread the first chord, slowly, as Emanuel Ax does, following Gould’s example. After that, however, he is impeccable, and Tilson Thomas is still on inspired form. Perhaps I should add that there are no concessions here to historical performance practice. Michael Tanner