BEETHOVEN's Fifth Symphony is surely a work one would have expected to be among the very first offered to the public B in a digital recording. But it is only now, nine years into the digital era, that this symphony of symphonies is so offered. There are in fact two new digital recordings of the Fifth, both recorded by the same Soundstream team and both issued on enterprising "independent" labels instead of the so-called "majors." Both are more than attractive, but the two performances are quite different.
On Telarc DG-10060, Seiji Ozawa conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a sturdy, conventional Fifth, with the BSO at or near the top of its form and the sound rich and well detailed. The repeat of the first-movement exposition is taken, and side two of the impeccable German pressing is filled out with a stirring account of the "Egmont" Overture.
The rival version is a Chalfont disc on which Loris Tjeknavorian conducts the London Symphony Orchestra (SDG-314). There is no filler, but the superb Japanese pressing is priced lower than the Telarc, and this Fifth really does offer something a bit different, as one may infer from the "Original Version" on the jacket.
Now, of course, Beethoven's symphonies were not subjected to anything like the revisions visited upon Bruckner's. Ates Orga, in his exhaustive annotation, explains what makes this performance different. In the matter of tempo, Tjeknavorian disregards Weingartner's recommendations and other traditions and for the most part goes back to Beethoven's own metronome markings of 1817. Tempi are held rock-steady, except in the finale and the repeat of the scherzo, in both of which sections Tjeknavorian allows himself to speed up ever so slightly. He takes the repeats in both outer movements and, as was done in the 1808 premiere, two repeats of the scherzo.
There are several other less conspicuous points of difference noted by Orga and readily apparent to the listener. None of these effects a substantial change in the work's character, but each in its way serves to make it not only fresher but actually stronger. Numerous little (and not so little) rhythmic touches and niceties of instrumentation stand out brilliantly without in any way impeding the dramatic sweep or natural momentum of the music. Indeed, even with all the repeats, this performance is only two or three minutes longer than the "average" Fifth.
Listeners accustomed to the traditional speeds in the outer movements may find Tjeknavorian's a little giddy at first hearing, but there is nothing gimmicky about this performance. If it does not suggest itself as a "basic" Fifth, it should appeal to collectors who enjoy more than a single version of such a work.
And so might Tjeknavorian's new digital recording, on the same label, of the Saint-Saens Symphony No. 3, with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Noel Rawsthorne, organ (Chalfont SDG-312). Here his tempo choices are convincing without exception; he is never breathless, but does not allow the music to dawdle. There is no hint of mawkishness in the Adagio, and the end of the work is really fiery instead of merely ceremonious. One might wish the LSO had again been used instead of the Liverpool orchestra, whose strings are hardly lustrous, but the vastness of the Liverpool Cathedral, in which the sessions were held, lends a certain sense of occasion to the recording.
Handsome as Tjeknavorian's Saint-Saens may be in its own right, however, I can recommend it only to those who insist on a digital recording or might like to have, as in the case of the Beethoven, a back-up version to alternate with a "basic" choice. RCA's remarkably successful half-speed remastering of its 1959 recording of this work by Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra (ATL1-4039) really leaves the back-up status the highest to which any rival version can aspire.