Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 5 & 8 (CD review)

Philippe Herreweghe, Royal Flemish Philharmonic. Pentatone SACD PTC 5186 316.

Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is probably the single most recognizable piece of music ever written, at least its first movement, and justifiably so.  It combines memorable tunes with tension and drama galore, raises one's spirit, and rushes the adrenaline. Which is exactly the way Philippe Herreweghe approaches it, directing his Royal Flemish Philharmonic Orchestra as he would any of the period-instruments groups he has lead over the years.

Herreweghe's Beethoven Fifth comes over with vigor, with verve, with energy in abundance, as he takes dashing tempos and accents the music at every opportunity with a theatrical panache that never sounds breathless or exhausting. He'll have your blood racing, almost in the way we think of Kleiber (DG) or Reiner (RCA) or the new Barenboim (Warner) doing it but without quite the voltage. OK, maybe it's more like Zinman (Arte Nova), actually, or possibly Norrington (Virgin), which is still saying a lot. Anyway, it is anything but conventional, and I liked it.

PentaTone's sound is also good, whether you choose the regular stereo layer or the slightly cleaner and more dynamic multichannel SACD layer. The sonics remain quite smooth and natural, with plenty of bite and a bass drum that must have been recorded with a mike six inches away.

That said, I didn't care as much for the accompanying Symphony No. 8.  While the Fifth is all restive excitement and emotion, the Eighth should be a relative island of repose, replacing the Fifth's spectacle with outright charm. However, Herreweghe seems determined to prove that the Eighth is not as lightweight as some people claim, and I found his reading rather heavy-handed. Even the sound seems too thick for the occasion. Still, having so good a Fifth may be reason enough for rejoicing.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa