Schumann called Beethoven's Fourth Symphony “a slender Greek maiden between two Nordic giants” as if it were some detour on a march to greatness. An assumption that the composition of one piece discretely followed another lurks behind his description, but Beethoven never composed that way. He was always working on several pieces  simultaneously while jotting down random, untethered ideas as they came to him. Sketches for what would become the Fifth Symphony appear two years before any for the Fourth, while the Fourth itself owes its very existence to an unexpected commission which ultimately interrupted work on several projects.

Andris Nelsons conducts the Boston Symphony in Beethoven © Robert Torres
Andris Nelsons conducts the Boston Symphony in Beethoven
© Robert Torres

During an 1806 summer visit to the estate of one of his patrons, Prince Carl von Lichnowsky, Beethoven accepted an invitation to hear his Second Symphony played by the house orchestra of the Prince’s neighbor, Count Franz von Oppersdorff. Beethoven was pleased, and readily took the Count’s commission. Given the context, it was only natural that he wrote something in a similar vein to the symphony which the orchestra had played so well. His initial ideas break into the ongoing revision of the opera Leonore in his sketch book. He soon drops everything to concentrate on the symphony, which comes together quickly.

Pairing the Fourth with the younger of its turbulent “Nordic” siblings proves it to be no weak sister and much closer to its brother than Schumann’s distinction allows. Both share the same rhythmic propulsion, straightforward clarity and simplicity; both begin with two falling thirds joined by a rising step, the germ for themes which follow and knit each symphony together; both play with the listener’s expectations – the Fourth with its deceptive start, the Fifth with a finale dotted with deceptive codas. All in the service to two very different ends, however; the sense of foreboding and tragedy which opens the Fourth turns out to be a set-up for the punchline of, in Leonard Bernstein’s words, “a four movement fun-fest”; in the Fifth, that sense is real and the opening rhythmic motif plunges the listener into the relentless, storm-tossed sweep of emotions which surges throughout.

Similarly, Andris Nelsons, employing a full Boston Symphony Orchestra and a mellow string tone, brought balance, clarity of texture, a strong, fluent rhythmic profile, and fine-tuned dynamics to the very different atmospherics of each symphony. The Fourth crept in slowly, like a wary black cat taking everything in before pouncing to say, let’s play! Nelsons created such a rhythmically taut rush of exuberant high spirits in the first movement that it elicited applause plus a few enthusiastic whoops from the audience. The arioso Adagio followed, flowing like a nocturnal serenade with touches of rubato casting a languid and the melancholy shadow. The Scherzo’s syncopation was boisterous and propulsive and the closing movement even more buoyant and infectious than the first. Though Beethoven never wrote a comic opera, the energy and effervescence of this performance left a vivid impression of how it might have sounded.

The drive and energy remained high after intermission as Nelsons took Beethoven’s “four-note tattoo” briskly holding the final note of the repeat marginally longer than the first iteration before hurtling into the movement. The power struggle throughout the Fifth between C minor and C major – between darkness and light – yielded expressive shadings of color and dynamics and a distinct rhythmic pulse for each movement which Nelsons built, tightened, and relaxed as necessary. Thanks to his mastery of creating and sustaining tension through dynamics and tempo, the bridge passage for timpani and strings between the third and fourth movement never sounded so fitting nor so dramatic. The C major outburst which followed flooded the hall with light and began a headlong surge toward the finale, whose rising tension was almost palpable. Its release was equally palpable, with this listener relaxing at the final chord and realizing he had been holding his breath for several bars.