It was initially meant to be a comparison of beginnings of Beethoven 5th's, because it is a legendary challenge for any conductor to start this symphony, and a constant subject of masterclass anxiety and monday morning hardships in orchestras worldwide.
There's something about the nature of the music at that very spot that just makes is perpetually challenging and interesting. If you are interested in an illustration of that, just watch each clip until the orchestra have played 20-30 bars, then move on the next video. You should learn a lot from it.
Needless to say, these are all great professional orchestras, and unfortunately there are no videos available to illustrate the very first attempts at starting the symphony at the very first rehearsals of any of these constellations. That would have been marvellous for someone like me, and probably right boring to someone not interested in conducting technique.
Let's begin with this fascinating character:
Leonard Bernstein - Wiener Philharmoniker
Look closely at the two first films here, and you'll see how Bernstein - by some considered a spur-of-the-moment unpredictable dandy - knows exactly what he's doing. With a tiny flick of the wrist, he illustrateshis choice of tempo to the orchestra (although it's the smallest of signals, it is easily interpreted by musicians of this caliber) and then gets on the case with his usual expressive personality. He does the exact same thing with both orchestras, years apart.
I never feel like Bernstein is trying to prove something - unlike other colleagues in some of the following examples - but only that he's trying his best to experience the music. That is very sympathetic.
And here is Lenny again, this time with the Bayerische Rundfunk Orchester
And now for something completely different:
Nicolaus Harnoncourt - The Chamber Orchestra of Europe
The only quasi period-instrument recording on this list. The trumpets and timpani are not modern, and that makes a huge impact on the sound along with Harnoncourt's short phrasing style and tight, sharp attacks. It has it's flaws and imprecisions, and the emotional impact on my 'modern' heart is nothing like the Muti or Klemperers, but on the other hand, I'm never bored and I find this version to be a credible attempt at reproducing Beethoven's contemporary reality.
Paavo Järvi - Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie
Another fast interpretation, just to compare with Harnoncourt. This one is played on modern instruments. Järvi looks so businesslike in comparison to for example Bernstein. The delivery is cool and strong, and leaves little respite or room for alternative interpretation on the part of the players. Among the faster interpretations, I much prefer the Harnoncourt.
It's hard to put a finger on, but in Järvi's case, I feel robbed of a certain kind of acceptance of the human condition. Everything is there, but I'm just not sure why it's there.
Kurt Masur - New York Philharmonic
Masur's style of conducting always seemed more intuitive than technical to me. This interpretation is among the heaviest, and to my ears doesn't compare in pure orchestral quality to the Philadelphia/Muti constellation. I do like how Masur seems to breathe in the whole world before the very first note, and that first iteration of the famous three-note motif is very powerful, but then I immediately get dissapointed by the abruptness of the second fermata. Why so short!? Beethoven wrote two full bars with a fermata on the second bar - but apparently Masur was not a big fan of that fact.
Christian Thielemann - Wiener Philharmoniker
According to people who work closely with Thielemann, he can be a beast most cruel and inhuman. And yet, it is always in an never compromising search for musical truths. He's the current equivalent to the great german giants of yore (like Klemperer, Karajan, Böhm etc.), and having heard him several times in concert, my feeling is that of immense respect but not necessary of any kind of emotional consonance or sympathy.
Riccardo Muti - Philadelphia Orchestra
I do love this. The orchestra playing is so strong, and Muti is so balanced in all aspects of his physicality. I feel the interpretation is coherent and congruent, and always powerful. It's not forced down my throat, it's just there for me to admire. I have just one small problem; similar to Thielemann, Muti decides to interrupt the audience with a 'surprise beginning'. I think it's tacky and unnecessary, and in my mind is doesn't relate to the emotional content of the music.
!! Bonus link: Same conductor, different orchestra: Muti + La Scala Philharmonic
Louis Langrée - Detroit Symphony Orchestra
I have included this to illustrate how some conductors interpret Beethoven's use of fermatas in the beginning of the symphony as if it was only a form of shorthand notation of a simple four bar phrase. To that, the response must be; if Beethoven wanted the sounding result of his notation to be two simple four-bar phrases with upbeats, why didn't he write that? He was a composer in complete and utter control of his creations. Nothing in the notation is random, nothing is approximated. As if to prove my point; at the recapitulation '(at 4 minutes and 17 seconds in) Langrée betrays his own inital thought construct by adding time to the second fermata. Thank you Mr. Langrée, now it sounds the way Beethoven notated it!
Herbert von Karajan - Berliner Philharmoniker
This video is very characteristic of Karajan: Overproduced and artificial. The doubling of wind parts and lining players up with metal neck-braces to make the orchestra look like a military platoon are just some of his gimmicks. More than anyone, he understood the meaning of multimedia, long before the advent of the internet and home entertainment. By shaping, molding, manipulating the visual aspect of the performance, he was a deciding player in a development that steered classical music towards being a) a much more visual artform and b) a much more removed artform, where the importance of the live performance is greatly reduced. In some respects, this has caused us a great trouble.
With that all said, Karajan's mysterious appeal is undeniable, his skillset is insurmountable, and his hands just seem to force the sound to go deeper and deeper into the earth.
Otto Klemperer - New Philharmonia Orchestra
Klemperer is here at the end of his life and at the end of his health, and the tempo is excruciatingly slow.
But, at the same time, it is so undeniably tied to Klemperer's physicality, that it for me transcends my reservations about the interpretation, and becomes a fascinating study of conductor/orchestra interaction. You can almost smell the respect that the musicians grant this ageing giant.
With any other person conducting the symphony like that, there would be uproar and coffee stains all over the cantina tables from heated discussions in the lunch break, but here I suspect there would have been a quiet hush and a respectful willingness to go whereever the old man wanted to go.
The Dude (Gustavo Dudamel) - Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra
I'm not a big fan of Dudamel's style of conducting, but i feel obliged to include it. It seems so forced, which is probably why some audiences love him. He 'looks' so interesting, with his bobbing hair and spirited personally. And then, the amazing success story of his "Il Sistema" upbringing make him the biggest it's-not-about-the-music conductors of our time. If you listen and compare it to several of the interpretations above, it suddenly becomes bland, and then you find yourself staring at him, searching for something...honest. I can't explain it in any other way.
I've gathered all these videos, and many more Beethoven 5th's (some weird ones too) in this youtube playlist: