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Classic Albums: Beethoven’s 5th and 7th Symphony, Vienna Philharmonia, Carlos Kleiber, cond

Classic Albums: Beethoven’s 5th and 7th Symphony, Vienna Philharmonia, Carlos Kleiber, cond

Although this Classic Albums series has its gaze primarily fixed on rock, jazz, and folk music, there are some extraordinarily powerful classic albums from the Classical canon that deserve greater attention. However, Carlos Kleiber’s legendary mid 1970s recordings of Beethoven’s Fifth and Seventh Symphonies, made with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, arguably stand at the pinnacle.

There’s nothing a writer in a hi-fi magazine can say about Beethoven’s symphonies that wouldn’t sound trite. Beethoven’s Fifth has unarguably the best known opening bars of any piece of music, ever. The four-movement symphony became a staple of the classical repertoire soon after its first public outing in 1808. It’s classical music for people who don’t ‘get’ classical music and was even called ‘The Victory Symphony’ after WWII, in part because the BBC’s broadcasts used by the British War Office to send messages to the resistence movement across Europe began with a variation on those opening bar played on tympani (‘dot, dot, dot, dash’ also happens to signify the letter ‘V’ in Morse Code).

If it were anyone other than Beethoven, the Seventh would be a pinnacle of a fine musical career. It’s the most rhythmic and spontaneous-sounding of his symphonies, and one of his personal favourites. It is not without its detractors, who think it somewhat haphazard by the standards of the mighty Third, Fifth, and Ninth. Nevertheless, it remains one of his most popular symphonies, especially for the progression in the second movement.

 

The 1970s were arguably not the best time for recordings from the Deutche Grammophon label. The house sound at the time placed undue emphasis on strings and brass, often at the expense of percussion. These recordings are no exception, sounding surprisingly thin and small at times. But, this is one recording where the sound quality really doesn’t matter. It’s the precision and the intensity of the interpretation that counts. Some might argue ‘too much structure’, and often criticise Klieber’s metronomic inflexibility and lack of flow and phrasing. But when it comes to bombast and style, these versions are the ones to beat.

In some ways, Kleiber’s Beethoven Fifth and Seventh are like Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue or Rumours by Fleetwood Mac; recordings available in dozens of different formats, and never out of print. Collectors prize the original two vinyl album pressings, but from an audio perspective, these two recordings were originally released at the height of what’s become known as ‘Oil Crisis Vinyl’; thin, sometimes recycled vinyl replaced thick slabs of 180g loveliness. The two symphonies were soon mated together on the same disc as CD appeared, then
re-released on ‘original image bit processing’ CD, then SACD, and more recently Blu-ray audio disc and 24/96 download taken from the converted analogue master tapes.

There is one collectable audiophile vinyl version; the short-lived Linn Recut pressing of the Fifth, where they were given rare access to the original analogue master tapes and made without any of the EQ and limiting commonly heard on 1970s DG recordings. This is, sadly, an extremely rare record.

There are those who prefer other performances (Furtwängler in the 1940s and 1950s, or Von Karajan in the early 1960s, both with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra being the most obvious examples), but it’s Kleiber who set a standard that remains unsurpassed to this day. Kleiber recorded fewer than 20 times in his whole career, effectively retired in his early 60s, and died aged 74 a decade ago. But his legacy lives on in those two powerful recordings.

Recorded: 1974 (Symphony No 5), 1975-76 (Symphony No 7)

Conductor/Orchestra: Carlos Kleiber/Vienna P.O.

Label: Deutche Grammophon

Tags: FEATURED

By Nicholas Ripley

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