Like nearly all of Klaus Tennstedt's work I've heard, this live Beethoven disc finds him and his orchestra sounding better than they did in the studio. Tennstedt was not a natural Beethoven conductor. His tastes leaned more strongly toward the late Romantics, and the London Philharmonic of this period could not be consistently relied upon to deliver upon his vision. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first available Beethoven Fifth from this conductor, and it proves rather more valuable than his Beethoven Sixth found on LPO-0085.
The opening "Coriolan" Overture has tremendous weight and power. While not razor-sharp in the tradition of Szell and Toscanini, it nonetheless satisfies more than the somewhat soggy and sloppy "Egmont" on the aforementioned "Pastoral" disc. At this point in his career, the conductor was rarely able to work, slowed by both illness and age. The "Coriolan" has some of the same power that characterizes his late – and exceptionally great – Mahler. The orchestra isn't perfect, but they play very well.
Still, nothing could have prepared me for this exceptional live account of the Fifth Symphony. The opening movement makes up for what it lacks in incisiveness with a wholly unexpected raw power. The bass is a little murky, which does tend to rob climaxes of full impact, but I was genuinely moved. There is plenty of great woodwind detail, and the brass are miles ahead of some of the sloppy work found on this label's live Bruckner. The second movement Andante is noble and strong, but also runs the risk of getting bogged down under its own grandiosity at a few points. Still, the first-desk playing has tremendous character and the strings sing sweetly.
The opening of the Scherzo makes me wish that the bass lines were more clearly captured, but the top half of the orchestra is in prime form. Again, the term "noble" comes to mind, and despite some signs that the strings are beginning to fatigue at the halfway point, there's much to appreciate. Curiously, as the Scherzo roars into its quicker sections, the cellos and basses suddenly become more clear. It's tremendously exciting and very well played. From the podium, Tennstedt may not match Klemperer for insight or Karajan for sheer polish, but he does have the air of mystery that made his Mahler and (sometimes) Bruckner so compelling.
The lead up to the Finale is poorly recorded, and the opening fanfares are a touch heavy. From there, it's akin to a giant mass of sound. The live BBC recording certain suffers here. What you can hear is pretty exciting, if again lacking that "snap" that gives Szell and Toscanini (again) the edge in my book. The whole movement feels less interesting and less heroic than what came before, though there are still many beautiful moments to savor. The brass are clearly giving their all, but they seem to be taxing themselves as a result; the overall sound varies in quality depending on the moment. The return of the main theme is measured – though still rather majestic. The closing pages are a thrill.
Will I keep this disc? I'm not sure. There are so many outstanding Beethoven Fifths, and ones less good than this that are more distinctive overall. Will I recommend this disc? Absolutely. Fans of the conductor and orchestra will doubtless want to hear Tennstedt in such total command, and considering that the London players were erratic at this point, it's great to hear everyone having such a good time. I can't call this a top choice, but in a sea of Beethoven this was an almost completely unexpected "big fish". I'm glad I heard it, and I hope you will feel the same.
Copyright © 2016, Brian Wigman