The performances of Beethoven’s complete symphonies will conclude with two of the best known, the Pastoral Symphony and the Fifth Symphony, interpreted by Manfred Honeck. Maestro Honeck’s decision to play them in reverse order, with the Fifth Symphony following after the Sixth, was no accident. This was exactly how the two symphonies were premièred on 22 December 1808 at the Theater an der Wien, but the whole programme was much longer. Following the Sixth Symphony were the aria Ah perfido, the Gloria from the Mass in C Major, the composer playing his Fourth Piano Concerto, then after the intermission the Fifth Symphony, the Sanctus and Benedictus from the Mass in C Major, Beethoven’s piano improvisation, and to conclude, the Choral Fantasy. The concert lasted more than four hours and it was not very warmly received because it was held under quite unfavourable conditions: the orchestra had only had one rehearsal and the length of the programme exhausted the audience. What would we give today for a chance to hear Beethoven improvise!
Half a year after the Fifth Symphony was published, E. T. A. Hoffmann wrote a brilliant analysis and enthusiastic review of the work and it soon became one of the key works in all of music history, a source of inspiration for Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Bruckner, Mahler, and Berlioz. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony opened one of the world’s most famous concert halls, Vienna’s Musikverein, it was played at the inaugural concert of the New York Philharmonic in 1842, and Jiří Bělohlávek chose it for his return to the helm of the Czech Philharmonic in 2012. The Pastoral Symphony is one of Beethoven’s few works with programmatic content. Beethoven loved nature and he spent plenty of time in the wilderness. On the content of the symphony, however, he said that the work was more of “an expression of feelings than a graphic description”.