Beethoven Symphony No. 4 in B-flat, Op. 60

performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Rene Leibowitz (see below for more information on recordings)

“a slender Greek maiden between two Norse giants”

Robert Schumann of Beethoven’s fourth symphony

I don’t know that I’d call her that, but she’s certainly beautiful and energetic.

This may likely be the least-performed of Beethoven’s symphonies. At this point, it’s one of only two of his (the other being No. 8) that I’ve not heard live, and to be honest, years ago (before I’d really gotten familiar with Mahler’s works; see below), I didn’t get much past the foggy, quiet opening, but nowadays, I can’t listen to it and not think of the very similar opening of Mahler’s first. Obviously Beethoven preceded G-Mahl by some 8 decades, but there is a similarity.

In any case, the reason it seems Beethoven’s fourth and eighth are overlooked is due to the unfortunate place into which they fall in the composer’s output, overshadowed by some of the greatest symphonies not just in Beethoven’s career, but in all of music. Symphonies 3 and 5 are the ‘Norse giants’ to which Schumann referred, and they were indeed enormous successes, and the same was true for no. 8 between 7 and 9.

What I found, though, I think, as a result of giving this symphony increasingly more attention is that it shows a phenomenal degree of talent, dazzling artistry in a style that is kind of a ‘flashback Friday fourth’, more in the manner of his first and second symphonies. Personally, I see this as a slightly safer move, a more conservative effort after his mind-blowing  epic Eroica. The first symphony begins quietly, with a little introductory bit. The second begins with varying degrees of forcefulness in those punctuated chords depending on who you’re listening to (Chailly and Harnoncourt hit them with real punch, Abbado less so [with either Vienna or Berlin], and the good ol’ Leibowitz bites pretty hard too), but there are still quiet introductory passages between them. In contrast, the third begins with two similar bites and never stops.

The fourth reels back a bit with a more ethereal, almost mystifying introduction. It’s dark, in a way almost menacing, but also with pastoral, almost rustic tinges added by winds here and there. These simple figures carry us through various degrees of darkness and shadow before things seem to brighten a bit, and then once we’ve made it through the other side of our introductory forest of fourths, the sunshininess of the first actual theme appears. Of this beginning, Leonard Bernstein says in this discussion of the fourth that the opening is “mysterious … [it] hovers around minor modes, tip-toeing its tenuous weight through ambiguous unrelated keys and so reluctant to settle down into its final B-flat major.”

I’ll talk below about specific recordings, but with this introduction that lasts a while (three minutes in Harnoncourt’s recording), it already makes up a quarter of the first movement. This seems like more than just introductory, but it makes the eventual explosion of the first theme that much more thrilling. It’s literally breathtaking, like hang-gliding off a cliff, free-flying with the wind in your face.

The second theme suddenly brings us back down, with various woodwinds (bassoon, oboe, flute) chirping at us from afar. This, to me, echoes the opening hints at pastoralness in our falling fourths. It’s certainly a contrast to the rush of the first theme, but ties everything together nicely, and it too has some pretty exhilarating string parts. The close of the exposition seems to hint at the thunderstorm passage of the sixth and brings this first section to a nice close before (the apparently optional repeat and) the development, where we see our themes working very nicely together, or else against each other.

There are distinct echoes of themes in the development, familiar but not old, such as the woodwind line that graced the beginning of the exposition. There are three loud explosions in the development section and then a contrasting quiet passage marked by lighter, more delicate strings and some timpani rolls, before it roars back to life in the recapitulation. And since it’s hard to leave such breathtaking subjects behind, we round it out with a roaring good coda. Seriously, take a few listens to this first movement alone and tell me it isn’t one of the most instantly satisfying and deeply, powerfully moving things Beethoven wrote.

The second movement is, ambitiously (or just largely), also in sonata form. The first theme is broad, not only in content and feel, but also in scope. It’s quite large relative to the second subject, and is at a much more laid back, spacious pace, and instead of fireworks and antics, we drift rather uneventfully into the second subject, with pizzicato strings and woodwinds (clarinet, prominently) singing quite pleasantly. The closing material for this sonata form movement is a bit more…. whirly, with strings spinning around on fluid figures in the background behind winds.

The sudden climax and drop to nothing tells us that we’re in the development. It’s again not just contrasts between keys and themes and content, but there’s a noticeable swell of almost majestic power that turns a bit stormy, and the rest of the development section is pretty quiet. Recapitulation, and another coda that contains misleadingly bucolic flute and clarinet solos before a false climax and the final end of the movement. It’s a bit hefty for a slow movement, but very effective. Wikipedia cites Oscar Thompson’s How to Understand Music when it makes the statement that “Hector Berlioz was so enamoured of the symphony’s 2nd movement that he claimed it was the work of the Archangel Michael, and not that of a human.”

The third movement is a minuet frenetic enough to be labeled a scherzo (maybe?), and is a perfect follow-up; think of what kind of triple-meter movement you’d expect to come after these first two movements.

opening of the third movement

While it isn’t large and expansive, the minuet is played through, a good bouncy kind of raucous thing, before a milder trio, almost baroque-sounding in places with trills and such, but builds to return to the minuet, and then again to the trio before the minuet and coda wrap up this lighthearted but powerful third movement. It’s satisfying on so many levels.

The fourth movement is also in sonata form! Luddy has cast his fourth in quite a large scale, but without being an unwieldy, overbearing work. It’s full of life and excitement, and this final movement is no exception. Our exposition here, with two almost-frenetic kind of busily buzzing themes, has a repeat before the development. This development is deliciously engaging, full of depth and interest, and right at the very end, just before the recapitulation, you’ll hear a frighteningly fast, articulated bassoon solo. This marks the recapitulation. The end of the recapitulation brings us (unsurprisingly, by now) to a coda, this one pretty lengthy, as if we’re all having a bit too much fun for it all to be over now, and indeed the entire symphony is vibrant, bubbly, exquisitely executed, to the point that it’s a bit difficult to pick a favorite recording.

Something to note here is… while I can’t be bothered right now to go back and look at the other three symphonies to remind myself, it seems that in this rather compact but very full fourth symphony, Beethoven is doing a lot with structure. We have a pretty typical four-movement symphony, but three of those movements are in sonata form and have codas, and the minuet has a full repeat of the trio with a coda. While it’s not a long symphony, Beethoven seems to pack a ton of very satisfying content and contrast into this rather small, nice little package.

I’ll say a few things on that topic of recordings, though. While Furtwangler and Szell and Solti and many (many many) others have all offered up their Beethoven cycles, I’ve moved away from the heavy-handed, overdramatic styles of Bernstein and Karajan in my Beethoven, and far prefer the likes of the Harnoncourt cycle. It’s powerful, crisp, full of energy, vibrant and exciting without being flippant. Apparently one of the earliest conductors to go back to this lighter, more energetic style was Rene Leibowitz, who recorded his cycle something like half a century ago with the Royal Philharmonic. iTunes (at least in Taiwan) had his cycle in their store for just a few bucks, and if it’s still there, I’d go snatch it up. While the sound quality might not match those of more modern recordings, it’s an exhilarating cycle.

More controversially, there’s Chailly’s more recent traversal with the Leipzig Gewandhaus, which was my go-to for a while, but it can be a little too bouncy and aggressive. Harnoncourt’s fourth turns down the neck-snapping tempi just a bit for a slightly weightier reading with no loss of energy.

Steve Schwartz writes at ClassicalNet that he quite likes Harnoncourt’s cycle, but finds his reading of the fourth “a rather perfunctory account and a real disappointment [that] catches fire only in the final movement.” I’m not so sure I agree with that, but Chailly’s reading is knock-your-socks-off kind of energy compared to almost anyone.

Schwartz continues to describe the Harnoncourt cycle

The Chamber Orchestra of Europe plays, for the most part, modern instruments in the modern way. … In short, the performance falls into the category of “modern, with slightly reduced forces.” The Chamber Orchestra of Europe plays wonderfully well, capable of everything Harnoncourt asks of them – from uncanny rhythmic precision and ensemble clarity to long singing lines – and Teldec has recorded them beautifully. These are, apparently, all live recordings, and (to paraphrase Shaw) you almost never can tell. There’s not an incompetent performance in the lot, and while I may find some less satisfying than others, I really talk about my own predilections and shavings of good.

This post isn’t about overall Beethoven cycles, which we will eventually get to (with Beethoven and others as we complete discussions of all of a composer’s individual symphonies), but Schwartz makes wonderful statements about Beethoven’s music in the context of discussing his preference for Harnoncourt’s approach. He says:

…most of us carry around a picture of “our” Beethoven in our heads. To some, Beethoven creates grand monuments to Humanity, and they want performances which give them that. Karajan, I think, speaks to this picture. To me, on the other hand, Beethoven’s music has “edges” and a charge of nervous explosiveness. There’s not only the feeling that anything can happen, including the opposite of what has gone before, but that what does happen is extraordinarily right. The music contains great rage and tenderness, nobility and agitation, and very little in between. There’s very little modest contentment, such as one finds in Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, and Dvořák.

I’m including these statements because I think this symphony is a perfect example of the ‘edges’ and ‘charge of nervous explosiveness’ that he speaks of. He so poetically described how I also feel about Beethoven’s symphonies (or music in general) and why I don’t have much interest in the ‘over-gilded’ interpretations of Karajan or Bernstein (sacrilege to some), and those comments are perfectly suited to this symphony, which is why I find it odd that it hasn’t caught on more than it has. It’s by no means ‘unknown’; it’s a Beethoven symphony, but if a Beethoven symphony is to be programmed, it’s far more likely to be one of the odd numbers than 4 or 8.

In any case, I’m extremely excited that the next Beethoven symphony on our list is the famous fifth, but I’m not sure when we’ll get to it; it doesn’t look like it’ll be any time this year, though. Stay tuned for more German(ic) symphonies this month and next.

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3 thoughts on “Beethoven Symphony No. 4 in B-flat, Op. 60

      1. We are certainly more than spoilt, and an entire lifetime wouldn’t be enough to explore them all. Nevertheless, I’ve tried to sample as many as I can, starting in my youth with the great classics from Walter, Klemperer and Solti, to modern HIP approaches from Immerseel, Gardiner, and Harnoncourt, but Järvi really manages something quite special with this not very well known orchestra.

        Here’s an overview of recent live recordings of the Beethoven symphonies by Järvi and the Kammerphilharmonie (not identical to the albums, but close):

        And here’s a quite well-done documentary on how Järvi approached the symphonies, by the English channel of German Television (DW):

        Would love to hear your thoughts.

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