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Ludwig Von Beethoven
Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67; Piano Concerto No. 4 in G, op. 58
Emanuel Ax, piano, Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony
Review By Max Westler


  For most ambitious conductors, the Beethoven Fifth Symphony is an inescapable rite of passage. The opening gesture, a four-note motto (one can hardly call it a theme) is, as one critic observed, the musical equivalent of "To be or not to be." And given that familiarity, that store of cultural baggage, listeners come to any performance of the work with the highest expectations. More importantly, by recording the best-known work in the entire orchestral repertory, a conductor puts him or herself in direct competition with several of the greatest interpreters of the 20th Century: Furtwangler, Toscanini, Catelli, Erich and Carlos Kleiber, among them.

MTT has recorded this work before, as part of a cycle of the complete symphonies with the English Chamber Orchestra. Those historically informed performances made use of the kind of chamber-sized ensemble Beethoven would have been familiar with, but were played on modern instruments. In the present instance, MTT unashamedly deploys a full modern orchestra, and tears into the music with all the weight and force at his disposal. The earlier recording was compelling in its way, insightful, but rather diffident; this live San Francisco Beethoven Fifth is something else again a performance that can proudly take its place with the greatest recordings ever made.

Characteristically, MTT's approach strikes a perfect balance between the heat of the moment and the structural needs of the whole. For the most part, his tempos are on the fast side, bristling at times, but without any loss of expressive detail. There's a sense of explosive force, of headlong momentum, but MTT is flexible enough to provide for emotional shading and dramatic contrast. Propulsive, intense, and structurally unified, the first movement builds to its mighty climax in an altogether natural way.

What most impressed Beethoven's contemporaries about his shocking new symphony was the organic nature of the work he'd created. Previously a symphony had been comprised of four separate, albeit related, movements. In the Fifth, Beethoven created a work that was in every way a carefully devised whole. MTT's great achievement here is to give us exactly that: a performance that sounds, from its first moment to its last, inevitable. "The enormous blaze of the triumphant finale" (Tovey's words) is all the more electrifying given that MTT has been working toward it from the beginning (and without any trace of deliberateness). Though played by a modern orchestra, MTT's textures are utterly transparent. Few period-instrument performances have done a better job of revealing the lean, severe orchestration Beethoven employs in the Fifth.

The performance of the Fourth Concerto is just as exalted. MTT and Emanuel Ax are sympathetic collaborators, and they passionately represent the two contrasting moods of this work: its rough-hewn assertiveness and its hypersensitive inwardness. Orpheus has never tamed the beasts with more heart-felt lyricism. And the last movement is played with an infectious spontaneity that is entirely winning. I've always admired Emanuel Ax as an artist, but number few of his recordings among my favorites. That's not the case any more. This Fourth Concerto is now my preferred version of the work.

The sound is demonstration quality, on a par with the remarkably high standard set by MTT's recently completed Mahler series. So, let's see what we have here: performances so fresh-sounding they'll make you forget how many times you've heard these works before, and thereby remind you of why they're so absolutely essential in breathtakingly realistic sound. So what are you waiting for? You need to get on line and order this disc right now.





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