It does not need restating that the former work stands as one of the great pinnacles of Western Art, but the poor Eighth is seemingly still viewed as the anomaly in Beethoven’s symphonic canon. The composer did the work few favours by referring to it as his “little Symphony in F”, evidently to distinguish it from its towering companions, the restless, incessantly propulsive Seventh and the monumental Ninth. But then Beethoven also noted that, in comparison to its predecessor, this work is “so much better”.
The Eighth can be interpreted variously. With its beautifully proportioned scoring and stream of arrestingly simple melodies, perhaps this is a loving homage to Classicism. Then again, I sense that a certain irony is to be found in the composition. Take the Allegro vivace e con brio, with its jubilant opening theme hinting strongly at bombast, soon collapsing under its own weight, and the lilting woodwind and string passages shouted mercilessly down by drum-saturated cries. Indeed, it is easy to forget quite how dark and tempestuous this movement can seem, if performed as such. Or take the rhythmical Allegretto scherzando, in which Beethoven makes use of the ticking of the recently invented metronome surely to parody the regularity of Classicism.
Or perhaps not, but either way, the work’s instillation of Romantic temperament into traditionally Classical models (a minuet in the third movement) produces a result that is at once highly unusual and highly invigorating. As is this performance from the Royal Flemish Philharmonic under Philippe Herreweghe. The band is not the most colourful, but the instrumentalists display sensitivity and personality, with Herreweghe drawing from each section a wide dynamic and dramatic range. The use of nature trumpets and Baroque kettle drums adds both brightness and brittleness to the performance, and their effect, when combined with the virtuosic playing, exhilarates. The speeds can be fast, but never to the detriment of the music’s natural shape. Indeed, comedy is conjured through the slightest inflections of tempo. In the concluding Allegro vivace, the pattering woodwind and strings reminded me of the jumpy nimbleness of Rossini’s storm scenes. Someone once said of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro that lightning seems to hang in the air, an elemental presence overseeing the action: that description could equally apply here, such is the danger and energy of the performance.
Oddly, Herreweghe’s interpretation of the Fifth Symphony does not hit the same heights. The playing is admirable, and much works well, but there seems to be something detrimentally polite about the outer movements. In the Allegro con brio, I yearned for yet more cragginess and gut-wrenched horror, and though the final Allegro is sonically glorious, some more soaring grandeur could be injected into the playing: the effect here can be bathetic. But then it is challenging to provide a completely fresh and exciting performance of so popular a symphony, and this version benefits by being recorded in immediate Multichannel sound. One thing I would like clarification on is the oboe solo, which is decorated as I have not heard it before. But the whole is a more than worthwhile release, though more for the Eighth than for the Fifth, whatever the merits of the latter performance.