A Fifth that'll make you shake — or nod — your head.
You'll notice something different about today's Beethoven Fifth right from the git-go, maybe not so much in the fateful opening four notes, but in the pause that follows. That pause, which recurs throughout the first movement, gets more pregnant with each iteration, creating an arc of increased tension and suspense right out of Alfred Hitchcock. And that's not the only unusual thing here. How 'bout those crazy twists and turns of tempo? Needless to say, they didn't set up a metronome for this one. You may or may not approve, but it does keep you guessing. And that's the point. We can never recapture the surprise with which the Fifth was met by its first audience (at the end of a very long, somewhat dismal evening). But we can shake it up in a way that both honors Beethoven and, following the first rule of entertainment, alleviates boredom.
Now, you know what fate awaits classical artists who dare to be different: critical opprobrium. It could be a gentlemanly tut-tut, as in Gramophone. It could be a full body slam, as in Classics Today. In fairness, some critics were just that, fair. And some of the other performances from the same set of Beethoven's complete symphonies are indeed more audacious, even outrageous.
But folks — do we need every Beethoven Fifth to sound more-or-less-the same? The CD catalogue bulges with great performances of every imaginable interpretive stance, from such conductors as Furtwängler, Szell, Kleiber and Gardiner, to name just a few. Classical interpretation is not a zero-sum game. No interpretation invalidates any other (actually, some musicians say that theirs do, but we know what we think of them ). If you don't like this one, try the next one. And if a new rendition doesn't make you hear something in the Fifth that you never heard before...well, check back a few paragraphs for the first rule of entertainment.
So with all that, dear reader and listener, check out WFCR just before 11:30 Monday morning for Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, performed by the Russian National Orchestra conducted by Mikhail Pletnev. And do let the rest of us know what you think.