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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 17, No. 2 October 2011

Variations on a Theme: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5

October 1, 2011

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Looking for a change from your go-to classics? Take a cue from the LSM team as we recommend listening alternatives to the usual masterworks.

The Masterwork:

Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 in C minor, op. 67
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) is widely considered as the dominant musical figure of the 19th century. His life’s work has been categorized by historians into three periods: the early period reflects the Viennese style of Mozart and Haydn; the middle period shows increased drama and expression through the symphonic form; and the late period, defined by his tragic deafness, features his most transcendent compositions.

Beethoven believed that a symphony was like a psychological journey, where themes represent characters and harmonies represent heroic victory. The Fifth Symphony, one of his most famous compositions, emphasizes the idea of struggle leading to triumph. Sudden changes of dynamic, intense transitions, recurring thematic material and spectacular coda sections represent the musical expedition this symphony takes us on. Beethoven is said to have described the opening four notes of the Fifth as “fate knocking at the door”, an association that accurately describes the importance of this theme, which returns several times throughout the symphony. Beethoven’s expansion of the sonata form and introduction of intense expression through instrumental music sets him apart from the traditions of the 18th century and forced a new standard for symphonic writing for years to come. Audrey Sproule

Alexandre Lazaridès’ Essential Fifth:
Beethoven: The Symphonies
Minnesota Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä
BIS-SACD-1825/26 (5 CDs: 5 h 53 min 16 s)
Among the “great” versions of Beethoven’s Fifth—and there are many—this more recent version (2004) from Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä should be included. It might be a lesser-known, but this exemplary recording successfully combines intensity without heaviness, and precision without dryness. It is like hearing this universally acclaimed work anew. The complete work is consistent throughout, and, moreover, it’s now available at a reduced price—a rare bargain.

Éric Champagne recommends…
Charles Ives (1874-1954)
Sonata No. 2, “Concord”
Year written: 1909-1915

Similarities: Steeped in the spirit of American transcendentalism, Ives created a stunning and complex work in which the “fate motif” of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is omnipresent, sometimes in the most unexpected forms. Its transformation in the third movement into luminous and magnificent major chords is wonderfully moving.

Differences: Ives’s harmonic and melodic language is highly developed and significantly more dissonant than Beethoven’s. Furthermore, in the second movement of his work, clusters are incorporated for the first time. To appreciate the richness of this iconoclastic piece, it may have to be listened to more than once.

Essential listening:
Ives: Piano Sonata No. 2 “Concord”
Jay Gottlieb, piano
Pianovox, PIA 503-2, 1998

Pemi Paull recommends…

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)
Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, op. 99
Year written: 1947-1948

Similarities: Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is associated with the defiance of fate, represented by its famous four-note “fate knocking at the door” motif, which appears throughout the piece. Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto, written at a time of extreme censorship in the Soviet Union, is an assertion of humanity in the face of forces seeking to crush the human spirit. The beginning of the Passacaglia is also notable for its juxtaposition of the invasion or Stalin theme from the Seventh Symphony and the fate motif from Beethoven’s Fifth.

Differences: Beethoven’s symphony is classical in form, and uses its famous theme to underpin the structure. The Shostakovich concerto uses a slow-fast-slow-fast structure, making reference the fate theme in a long violin cadenza which links the Passacaglia, which is the emotional heart of the concerto, to the final Burlesque movement.

Essential listening:
Shostakovich: Violin Concerto No. 1; Festive Overture op. 96
Leonid Kogan, violin; Moscow State Philharmonic Orchestra/Rozhdestvensky
Russian Revelation (10084), 1997

Paul E. Robinson recommends…
Charles Ives (1874-1954)
Concord Sonata
Year written: 1915 (revised 1947)

Similarities: This is one of the great piano pieces of the Twentieth Century. It is comprised of impressionistic pictures of Emerson, Hawthorne, the Alcotts and Thoreau, but musically it makes extensive use of the familiar opening of the Beethoven Fifth.

Differences: The Concord Sonata quotes Beethoven but is highly experimental. The performer needs a piece of wood to play a cluster chord in the second movement, and there are optional parts for viola and flute. Even after nearly one hundred years it remains a surprising and exciting piece. Just like the Beethoven Fifth.

Essential listening:
Marc-Andre Hamelin, piano
Hyperion CD A67469, 2004

Catch Beethoven’s Fifth LIVE:
• National Arts Centre Orchestra/Lintu; October 12. Ottawa – nac-cna.ca
• Orchestre Métropolitain/Yannick Nézet-Séguin; October 20. Montréal – orchestremetropolitain.com
• Toronto Symphony Orchestra/Storgaards; February 16, 18, 2012. Toronto – tso.ca

Translation from French: Lynn Travers

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