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It's arguably the most famous opening in all of classical music. But what's the best recording of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5? Listen to our playlist, read our recommendations, and click on the links to download your favourite versions from our chosen selection.
A name synonymous with Beethoven’s symphonies was the Italian maestro Arturo Toscanini. His 1933 recording, although skillfully re-mastered by Mark Obert-Thorn, is of vintage stock. But the dynamically controlled performance more than shines through. Even as early as those opening bars you know you’re in for a treat – brisk tempos and precision playing abound, yet the music never falls off the rails and Toscanini brings proceedings to a close in the finale in a most exhilarating way.
No less gripping is Sir Roger Norrington in his period instrument account. He pays special attention to Beethoven’s original metronome markings and his orchestra seems to revel in these lively speeds. Unlike some recordings, the brass and percussion are allowed a greater say, especially in the first movement. Crisp articulation is in evidence (particularly in the third movement) and with a finely balanced recording to boot, this is a worthy candidate.
Another conductor with a keen eye for observing Beethoven’s original tempos is Riccardo Chailly, who has recorded a set of all nine symphonies. Chailly’s first movement has plenty of vitality and storms along in pretty relentless fashion. The finale is mostly hard driven with some added flavours, such as spotlighting the piccolo, which are not always allowed such prominence. What is especially captivating here is the rich sound of this wonderful orchestra, due in no small part to some particularly skillful engineering.
This is a virtue that can also be attributed to Carlos Kleiber’s reading from the mid-1970s. So much detail can be heard from an orchestra whose players rise to the challenging demands of their master. In the second movement, when the pace eases, the strings generate a sweet and lush timbre, contrasting effectively with the powerhouse treatment of the outer movements. The lead-in to the finale really sets the pulse racing before the penetrating and explosive nature of Kleiber’s conclusion.
For less flesh on the bones we turn to Charles Mackerras and his slimmed down forces, which allows for great transparency. It’s bright and breezy throughout; a few noises off may disturb some, but after all it is a live recording that successfully represents that unique concert hall experience.
Our five Fifths are just a handful of the dozens currently available, so it’s with regret that other commendable versions missed the cut. But our winner would certainly top an even greater field of runners as its attributes are numerous. And so, unreservedly, it is Carlos Kleiber who triumphs in this fiercely contested encounter.