Thursday, June 30, 2011

Fricsay's Beethoven 5

I've been listening to Ferenc Fricsay's 1961 recording of Beethoven's Fifth with the Berlin Phil, and by gosh it is slow. How slow is it? The second movement is more than 13 minutes long, is how slow. It's common to see it done in less than 9.
Let's bring in someone with more expertise. Here's Edward Greenfield's review in the February 1963 issue of Gramophone:
I can only assume DGG have decided to issue this now just to show how superbly responsive the Berlin Philharmonic is to the most hair-raisingly contrasted demands. Where Karajan in the new complete cycle is all strength and light, Fricsay is slow and heavy. Klemperer for one can make such speeds as these sound convincing and even inevitable. But even Klemperer comes nowhere near Fricsay in his speed for the slow movement.
To illustrate with statistics, Fricsay takes no less than 87 seconds by my reckoning for the first subject to bar 22. Karajan in his new version takes 53 seconds for the same passage, and both Klemperer's versions come closer to Karajan than Fricsay-60 seconds and 62 seconds respectively. Fricsay's speed is just grotesque, with no thought for the marking con mote, and so it is again in the Scherzo. The double-bass passage at the beginning of the Trio has been likened to the lumbering of elephants, but under Fricsay that is the movement's most impressive passage, and it is the rest which is elephantine. The outer movements, too, are very much on the slow side, but there simple massiveness and orchestral efficiency help to make some amends. But not only are the basic speeds slow, Fricsay tends to drag still further with exaggerated rallentandos and pauses. The recording is dim and cloudy by comparison with that given to Karajan. A depressing issue, though for once there can be little complaint about the Fifth taking two whole sides: this must be quite the longest version ever put out.
So yes, it's slow. Very slow. But depressing? I disagree. What the slow movement has a lot of is sadness, and I also hear a dignified stoicism. Perhaps Edward Greenfield didn't know when he was writing his review that Fricsay was dying of cancer (he died on February 20, 1963, aged 48). Perhaps the nature of the slow movement has nothing to do with Fricsay's illness, but it's hard now not to make a connection. Certainly the performance makes more sense that way, if not as the conductor's personal tragedy then something more universal, to see it more in the mould of the Eroica's slow movement - or, in places, prefiguring the rapt nature of the Ninth's. Otherwise, the symphony doesn't really have a slow movement, only a "relatively slow" movement.
The Scherzo is rather slow too. It's not a Scherzo. But if we're already accepting the darkness of this reading of the symphony, well then here's more of the dark. The Trio is certainly lighter, but that doesn't last especially long. Dubbing the rest of the movement "elephantine" rather misses the tensile strength of the music that comes after the Trio.
Ironically, the last movement is shorter than usual, but that's because he's left out the repeat. Whereas in your typical reading the battle's been won by the time the fourth movement starts, with Fricsay there seems to be some lingering doubt - not much, but the triumph's not quite as clearcut. The climactic bit before the return to the third-movement material has more than a hint of menace about it. But we do win out in the end; again, the rest of the Finale is a bit slower than others, and you might at this stage hope for a little more release. But there's glory here, and the payoff is worth it, because by dragging out the final chords Fricsay makes the ending not just fun but funny, really emphasising the "I'm finished - no, I'm not finished!" aspect. I doubt if he conducted this with a twinkle in his eye, yet there's a suggestion that he's just daring you to applaud too soon.
I must point out here that I came to this recording with no preconceptions at all about it or Fricsay; I was instantly struck by its slowness, and yet also very quickly convinced that this all made sense. Perhaps I was caught on a good day; maybe a week earlier I'd have dismissed it as "grotesque". But that is part of a larger thesis about criticism and perception that can be saved for some other time. Our thoughts for today are two: first, Fricsay's Beethoven 5 is really different but really good, and second, I wonder what he'd have sounded like in Mahler's symphonies?

(The above image, by the way, is from one of those here-are-lots-of-recordings blogs, Sentidos. If the transfer is from the original 1961 LP, then next year it will be perfectly legal in Europe to download the transfer.)

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