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Show Review: Berlin Philharmonic delivers during Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67

If you asked a stranger on the street what the most recognizable four notes are, they would probably sing back to you the opening notes of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67.

Although Beethoven revealed his increased hearing loss in 1801, he refused to let his impaired hearing stop him from composing masterpieces, stating in a letter he would “seize Fate by the throat; it shall not bend or crush me completely,” according to a report from NPR.

Coincidentally, or purposefully, Beethoven allegedly told his assistant that the iconic four note rhythm at the beginning of the Fifth is Fate knocking at the door.

The short-short-short-long rhythm is by far one of the most popular and recognizable rhythms in the world, its permeance in film, television, pop culture and other classical compositions becoming the epitome of Beethoven’s musical style and mastery.

Those first four notes, ‘ba-ba-ba-bum,’ seem to awaken any audience, no matter if they’re sitting in the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome, where the 2001 performance was recorded live, or through a computer screen 19 years later. The late and great conductor Claudio Abbado guides the Berliner Philharmoniker expertly through the symphony, himself even putting on a performance with his facial expressions and gestures mirroring the musical tones of Beethoven’s Fifth.

With every repetition of the iconic theme, the dynamics swell and recede, creating auditory wave movement throughout the first movement (Allegro con brio) and the rest of the symphony. The oboe, flute, clarinet and violins push lyrical lines giving way to a newfound theme that will weave in-and-out of the music for the remainder of the symphony.

The building drama with each repeated theme, lyrical lines scattered throughout and changing of harmonies amounts to a theatrical start to the legendary symphony and trickles into the softer, lilting second movement (Andante con moto).

If the first movement was a bombastic fanfare to rally the troops, the second is the calm before the storming of the battlefield. The violas and cellos spin an ethereal secondary theme through the orchestra with the flute and oboe lovingly mirroring them, the same lyrical line first introduced by the violins in the first movement.

The two instrument groups behave like dance partners floating around one another, meeting in the middle during dynamic swells but whirling away as the lilting line backs off.

While the sweet, lyrical theme floats through the orchestra, another variation surges forward with swaggering force. This new variation seems to answer the sweet, lyrical theme with a triumphant march that declares victory over the second movement before the third movement begins.

The second movement, although often overlooked, showcases Beethoven’s mastery and innovation within the classical period. Abbado seems to relish in the romance of the second movement and I wouldn’t be surprised if he was inwardly dancing on the podium.

Beethoven combined the third and fourth movements, which if you watch and listen closely to Abbado’s conducting of the orchestra, you can hear the softest of pauses between the two. The third movement (Allegro scherzo) is a playful and lighter theme in comparison to the previous themes Beethoven explored back in the first and second movements.

Higher and lower pitched instrument groups seem to taunt each other, a dialogue initially soft and playful that becomes dark and foreboding as the thematic variations come to an end. A pizzacato section for the strings hushes listeners and is expertly navigated by the group and pushes listeners to the edge of their seat with a strange combination of anxiety and curiosity.

But it’s the march of the timpani that takes the cake for this movement. The timpani follows violins with soft tapping that is more heavily expressed in the fourth, but it’s marching rhythm drives us through to a triumphant end. The victory and relief of ending the third is palpable and leads to the exciting fourth movement with flair and triumph.

Without a moment to pause and reflect on the wonder of the third movement, the opening chord sets the tone with the help of strings, trombone, piccolo and contrabasson to the fourth.

The harmonies and accompaniments throw splashes of color into the last movement and all of the theme variations weave in-and-out of the finale without faltering. Abbado conveys the same triumph and relief the audience and orchestra feels in the finale with some magic thrown into the mix.

The variations of the themes and perfectly matched harmonies display Beethoven’s mastery into a cohesive and colorful finale that lives on in the minds of the music community 200 years after its birth.

I like to believe fate was truly knocking at Beethoven’s door and was standing on the front step ready to tell him that this symphony would be ironically his fateful imprint on the world.


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