In the numbering of symphonies written by classical composers, the numeral “5” has special significance. A number of fifth symphonies are considered the best symphonic work by a particular composer, or if not that, the most popular, or in some cases, both. Here are some recordings that prove the point. Perhaps you already have a recording of a particular 5th symphony. There might still be a reason you should hear another recording that I’ve recommended. I have also listed a few alternate choices that provide sometimes different, yet equally valid interpretations. And if a record stirs you to seek out more pieces by the composer, I’ve listed some suggested guidelines as “Further Explorations.” I’ve also listed formats that are available. Many original LP versions can be found on Amazon.com and other sites at amazingly low prices. Let’s go!
Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony found the composer at his prime, assured and in total command. The four note opening motto (sometimes popularly referred to as “fate”) is known to just about everyone, as easily recognized as the totally different four note motto for the TV show Dragnet. The dramatic first movement is permeated by this motto and its rhythmic spin offs. The second movement is flowing and grand, with florid variations on its noble theme. The third movement is at first subdued and mysterious with bolts of musical lightning that pop up when not expected, and after an ominous, suspenseful crescendo, we’re plunged into the all-stops-pulled-out heroic finale. There are dozens of recordings in the catalog but no other conductor except Paavo Jarvi wrings every last ounce of drama out of this music without missing a single nuance along the way. Jarvi uses period approaches to phrasing and has the strings play with little vibrato. The orchestra responds with splendid virtuosity and the recording is appropriately transparent yet not without heft and solidity when called for. This reading is exciting with a capital “E!”
Alternate Takes: Minnesota Symphony, Osmo Vänskä, conductor (BIS SACD); l’Orchestre de la Suisse Romance, Ernest Ansermet, conductor (Decca/London LP and CD)
Further Explorations: Symphonies 3 (Szell), 4 (Solti), 6 (Vanska) 7 (Colin Davis, EMI), 9 (Munch), Piano Concerto No. 5 “Emperor,” (Serkin, Bernstein), Overtures (Minnesota Symphony, Skrowaczewski)
Prokofiev’s greatest symphony was written in 1944 and was intended to commemorate the human spirit and the triumphs of Russia in the Second World War. His chronicled purpose was to write “a hymn to the free and happy Man, to his mighty powers, his pure and noble spirit” adding that “The music matured within me. It filled my soul.” Readers who already know it will realize that numerous passages in the work allude to the composer’s ballet music and are exceptionally lyrical in nature. The piece is scored for a very large orchestra, including a percussion section comprised of timpani, bass drum, snare drum, cymbals, triangle, tambourine, tam-tam, and wood block. George Szell’s magnificent Cleveland Orchestra makes the most of it with luscious tone and virtuoso playing. The recording, by Thomas Frost’s production team, is delightfully airy with cohesive detail and excellent focus.
Alternate Takes: Boston Symphony, Erich Leinsdorf, conductor (LP and CD)
Further Explorations: Romeo and Juliet (Previn), Piano Concerto No. 3 (Grafman, Szell), Love for Three Oranges (LSO, Dorati)
At the time of its conception, the most popular symphony written by Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich was a nail biter. In the 1930s, Russian composers were controlled by Joseph Stalin. The latter had to like your composition or it was quite likely that you might be blacklisted, or worse. Stalin had denounced the composer’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in 1936, which meant that the composition of a new symphony was an at risk proposition. Nonetheless Shostakovich proceeded with the Fifth Symphony and it turned out to be high successful in Russia and beyond. The Bernstein 1959 recording was made in Boston after a highly successful Russian tour. It finds the maestro at his best and the orchestra responding to him hand in glove. The recording has weight and transparency, one of the better recordings of the late 50s. It is controversial as Bernstein takes a rapid tempo for the bombastic finale, one that many scholars have argued runs counter to the composer’s intentions. Since that time recordings have been “correctly” slowed down to the point of falling apart. I’ll take Bernstein’s taut and exciting approach. Throughout the symphony Bernstein responds with verve to the dramatic parts and with sensitivity in the third movement, one of the composer’s most beautiful essays in romantic lyricism.
Alternate Takes: London Symphony Orchestra, André Previn (LP, CD)
Further Explorations: Symphonies 6 (Boult), 9 (Bernstein) 11 (Stokowski), Piano Concerto No. 1 (Previn, Bernstein) The Age of Gold Ballet Suite (Martinon)
In the case of Tchaikovsky it is not so easy to pick a “best” symphony. Any of the last three could fill that bill, and the Second Symphony might fall on many “favorite” lists. The Fifth Symphony has no specified program and is one of the few of the composer’s works to use a recurring main theme, first stated by the clarinets at the opening of the first movement. It is arch romantic in tone, progressing from tragedy to triumph at the heroic end of the fourth movement. It has been often excerpted for film and television; English lyrics were set to the second movement’s famous horn solo as “Moon Love” and recorded as such by Glenn Miller, later by Chet Baker.
There are many fine recordings but for my money Jascha Horenstein’s heartfelt, dramatic interpretation is at the top of the list. The New Philharmonia Orchestra plays exceptionally well for him and the recorded sound, originally done for Reader’s Digest, was produced with loving care by Charles Gerhardt and Kenneth Wilkinson. The result is demonstration quality, rich and colorful, detailed, defined, and dynamic.
Alternate Takes: Maazel, VPO (Decca LP, CD), Dorati, LSO (Mercury LP, CD)
Further Explorations: Symphony 4 (Markevitch), Piano Concerto No. 1 (Gilels, Reiner), Swan Lake (Previn), Romeo & Juliet (Muti)
Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote nine symphonies and though all are masterpieces, the fifth is often considered as the heart of his pastoral style, which he had abandoned in writing the violent, dissonant Fourth Symphony. It is one of the quietest works the English composer ever wrote, only rising to forte on rare occasion. Vaughan Williams had been working on the opera The Pilgrim’s Progress for some time and incorporated many of its musical themes into the symphony. This gives the work a spiritual core to go along with its pastoral beauty. The third movement, “Romanza,” is to my mind one of the loveliest pieces that the composer ever wrote. Though Sir Adrian Boult is usually the go-to person for performances of Vaughan Williams’ music and his two recordings of the 5th (mono and stereo) are certainly appealing, it is Sir John Barbirolli who really gets at the soul of this music, aided by luminous playing from all sections of the Philharmonia Orchestra and a glowing recording that sounds just right.
Alternate Takes: Boult, LPO (LP, CD, EMI)
Further Explorations: Symphonies 3, 6, 7 (Boult, mono Decca, and stereo EMI), Job (Boult, Everest), Tallis Fantasia (Boult, EMI), The Pilgrim’s Progress (Boult)