Beethoven wrote the Fourth Symphony to unblock problems he was encountering with what we now know as the Fifth. Karajan thought it the most difﬁcult of the nine to direct; others see the Fifth as being, by some distance, the more perilous. Whatever the perils, both are beautifully articulated by Philippe Jordan and the Vienna Symphony in this second instalment of an already distinguished Beethoven cycle whose point of arrival will be the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth in 2020.
Jordan’s account of the Fourth is wellnigh ideal: lithe, lyrical, rhythmically intent. Tempos in the two outer movements are swift, one movement mirroring the other in a way that gives the symphony an agreeably through-composed feel. Nor is anything rushed or overdriven, so ﬁnely calibrated is the playing. It helps that the orchestral sound, nicely deﬁned in this exemplary Musikverein recording, has a welcome transparency to it.
The performance of the Fifth Symphony is lean-bodied and swift in the modern style. One notices this in particular in the ﬁnale, where the march takes on something of the spirit of the Marseillaise. It’s a view of the music that has become fashionable in recent years – the symphony as a manifestation of a speciﬁcally French revolution – though it’s not one that was shared by an older generation of conductors (even the pacier ones) up to and including Carlos Kleiber in his celebrated 1974 Vienna recording (DG, 6/75). For them the symphony was a journey per ardua ad astra that moves with a steadier tread and weightier sonorities.
Jordan, however, has his own way of adding amplitude. As in his ﬁlmed cycle of the nine with the orchestra of the Paris Opéra (Arthaus Musik, 12/16), he includes the Fifth Symphony’s third-movement repeat (bars 1-234) which Beethoven deleted due to an overlong inaugural concert. (A deletion he possibly came to regret.) It’s a repeat that widens and rebalances the work’s architectural footprint, without in any way distracting from the larger argument.
Whatever one’s preferences as to text or pulse, rest assured that what Jordan and his superbly trained players give us is thoughtthrough Beethoven of the highest order.