Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Sibelius and Shostakovich -all masters of the Symphony in their own rights.
This is not an analysis of the works, just my thoughts and recommendations of recordings.
So, thinking about the symphonies which I like the most, I realised that they all had something in common: the No.5 and they’re all brilliant works!
Beethoven’s iconic Symphony no.5 Op.67
So most people know Beethoven’s fifth symphony, if not the whole work definitely the first 4 bars – commonly known as da-da-da-daaaaa, da-da-da-daaaaaa.
I think this piece in particular is a great introduction into classical music. The spirit and fire of the first movement is just so enticing and exciting. The key C minor paired with the general character and use of repetition especially in the first movement in my eyes epitomises Beethoven as a man. Beethoven worked on it for around 4 years (between 1804-1808) and I think you hear his journey and growth throughout the four movements.
I remember playing it in my first ever symphony orchestra concert when I was at Purcell and the adrenaline that you feel playing it is just amazing. Most people only tend to think about the first movement but the second movement really shows Beethoven’s warm, beautiful side. And I never fail to smile with a weird sense of pride by the time the scherzo leads into the victorious and triumphant finale – so don’t stop listening at the famous first movement!
Tchaikovsky’s 5th symphony Op.64
To be honest, I’m a big Tchaikovsky fan so I love his symphonies 2, 4,5,6. However I do think his fantastic Pathétique Symphony (no.6) often eclipses his others. I’m a sucker for a good theme in a minor key so naturally I loved it on the first hearing. From is use of orchestration and texture and his ever-present theme of fate to his use Russian folk tunes, this symphony is quintessentially Tchaikovsky. Listen out for the beautiful horn solos in the second movement. The cyclical nature and recurring themes of the symphony really gives this symphony its own character amongst Tchaikovsky’s other symphonies.
I just love the sense of drama that Tchaikovsky features in his works.
So the first time I was exposed to the brilliance that is Gustav Mahler was when I played his Bluminé on the Vienna tour with the Nottingham Youth Orchestra. I was taken aback at the sheer emotion conveyed through his music.
Hearing the haunting trumpet solo which opens his 5th symphony, one cannot help but be automatically enthralled. For me, this work is a whirlwind of emotions. At times can be very loud, colossal sound and typically German yet the “Adagietto” 4th movement is so beautifully intimate. I don’t really have too much to say. Just listen…
Sibelius 5 Op.82
For me, this symphony is real contemplation of life symphony. It’s bigger than the music itself; it is a realisation of this life, nature, emotion.
Saying that, I remember the first rehearsal (I played this at the Queen Elizabeth Hall when I was at Purcell) and I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t get it. I just didn’t get it. I didn’t understand the music or what it represented. In all honesty, I found it to be somewhat “abstract” – it was unlike anything I had ever heard before, a completely different sound world. So, I went away and listened. Still nothing. I told my violin teacher at the time that we rehearsing the symphony and she was really excited and said it was such an amazing work so I really believed that I was missing out on something special. It was only in the tutti rehearsal of the last movement when I felt it – the power of Sibelius 5. I think the whole orchestra felt it because there was a weird buzz of excitement after the rehearsal and for the rest of the week everyone around school could be heard humming a melody or motif from the piece.
Originally composed in 1915, Sibelius revised and revised the symphony into the final 1919 version that we know and cherish today. Notorious for destroying his scores, I’m so grateful that Sibelius kept this phenomenal work. It’s another piece that you go on a journey with, experiencing the Finnish landscape and scenery and all the emotions of life to go with. It’s just one of those pieces that instead of talking you just have to listen to and experience it for yourself in your own time. I love the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra’s recording under Simon Rattle. They did a more recent recording at the Barbican Centre in London last year, if you can find the video/ televised version watch it!
Here’s a snippet of the last movement.
Symphony No. 5 Op.47- Shostakovich
So the first time I every heard this symphony, it was performed by the Hallé Orchestra conducted by Sir Mark Elder at The Royal Concert Hall in Nottingham. Similarly to Sibelius, it was a completely different world of sound that I usually encounter and I loved it! I couldn’t stop listening, I couldn’t shut my ears off. From the very beginning, Shostakovich demands that you listen. I think what is so poignant about this particular work is that the listener cannot help but empathise with Shostakovich. One both hears and feels the struggles and despair especially on hearing the rising and falling minor 6th-minor 3rd of the first movement. The violin solo in the first movement is a sigh or cry of sorrow, perhaps it is a question of why? The long-line melodies in the “Largo” 3rd movement for me are heart-wrenching. And the finale is a another triumphant one with a strong defiance in the face of adversity. He falls out of favour then he rises successfully a year later with this symphony.
Bernstein with the Berlin Phil 1979