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When Carlos Kleiber released his classic Beethoven Fifth in 1975 with the Vienna Phil., it made his reputation overnight, and the recording was greeted as a revelation. At the time I wondered if this was really true, since two older Fifths from the early Sixties, Karajan with the Berlin Phil. and Bernstein with the NY Phil., seemed quite wonderful already. Now I have the latest remastering of each, so I decided to sit down and compare them.

Sonics: The Kleiber recording was never one of DG’s best–edgy, a bit thin, lacking in warmth. In its “Originals” reissue things are improved but not drastically so. However, neither Karajan nor Bernstein sounds appreciably better, the main difference being that these conductors asked for heavier weight in the lower part of te orchestra and were given wider stereo by the engineers. There is still some shrillness in the strings at loud volume on all three CDs. I would say that Karajan’s latest SACD remastering gives him the edge. The trumpets at the beginning of the finale, for example, sound more exciting and easier on the ear.

Tempos: It’s remarkable that all three ocnductors hear the Beethoven Fifth at the same tempo in every movement, within a few seconds of each other. (Karajan times out faster in the finale because he skips the exposition repeat, which Kleiber and Bernstien both take). The main exception is Bernstein’s first mvoement, which at 8:30 takes a full minute longer than the other two and sounds stodgy by comparison (heard in isolation it comes off as measured and grand, a traditional approach in this movement, except for the ever-fleet Toscanini).

Interpretation: Here is where Kleiber’s reputation stands or falls. I think if I played these three recordings blind, the finales would be identical to any listener. Karajan’s first movement is more propulsive than Kleiber’s–a surprise since Kleiber was praised for finding new energy in this worn-out music. In the second movement, where Kleiber always seemed light and expressive, the other two are, also. The scherzos are more or less identical. Only Bernstein’s measured first movement gives away his performance, yet with careful listening it emerges that Karajan’s phrasing is a bit on the stiff side, while Kleiber’s orchestra seems a shade more alert and expressive.

In all, these are all performances to live with a long time. To me, it was surprising that Kleiber wasn’t as revolutionary as I’d thought three decades ago. If it makes a difference, I once put five versions of the first movement on a CD to see which was preferred by some friends in a blind listening test. The Kleiber easily won, so maybe there is something special here after all. Second place went to Reiner’s great recording from the Fifties on RCA.

-Some Guy,

Ludwig van Beethoven-SYMPHONIES NO. 5 & 7 (Carlos Kleiber & Weiner Philharmoniker, 1975)


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