There is the distinction between “greatest” and “most popular."
Dvořák: 7. Sinfonie
hr-Sinfonieorchester – Frankfurt Radio Symphony, Peter Oundjian conducting
Tchaikovsky Symphony No.5
By Zubin Mehta and Israel Philharmonic Orchestra
I’ve had dozens of conversations that discussed the greatest symphonies of all time. I’ve read dozens of articles on the same topic. The usual suspects are all there, Beethoven’s Ninth, Mahler’s Ninth, Bruckner’s Eighth, Brahms' Fourth, Shostakovich’s Seventh, but what about the best second-best symphonies of all time?
Who wrote the best second-best symphony? Allow me to explain.
Tchaikovsky’s greatest symphony is his Sixth. In my opinion, his second-best symphony is his Fifth. How does Tchaikovsky’s Fifth stack up against the second-best symphony Sibelius wrote, which would also be his Fifth?
Of course, it isn’t always clear which symphony is a composer’s greatest. In the case of Mozart, his Symphony No. 41 is usually considered to be his greatest but just as many partisans might consider his Symphony No. 40 to be his greatest.
Brahms: Symphony No.1 in C Minor, Op.68
Berlin Philharmonic (Karajan)
SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No 10 in E minor op 93
Dir. Valery Gergiev-Orq. Mariinsky theatre
With Beethoven, it becomes even more difficult. If you Google “greatest symphonies of all time”, you might be surprised at how often Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 comes out on top as the greatest ever written. Where does that leave us with his second-best? Is it the Ninth? The Fifth, Seventh, or even the Sixth?
Sibelius, Symphonie Nr 5 Es Dur op 82
Leonard Bernstein, Wiener Philharmoniker
Mahler Symphony No 2
Gustavo Dudamel · Simón Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela
There is also the distinction between “greatest” and “most popular”. Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 is not his greatest symphony but it is clearly his most popular. The same can be said for Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4, and Mahler’s Symphony No 5.
Bruckner - Symphony No. 7
Celibidache - Münchner Philharmoniker Live Tokyo 18 Oct 1990
Mozart, Symphony No 40
Harnoncourt, VPO Japan Live series
It’s a daunting task but I think it could be fun so let’s take a listen to the top nine second-best symphonies ever written.
Beethoven- Symphony No 9 in D minor, 'Choral'
Georg Solti-London Philharmonic Orchestra-1986
Number nine is Dvorak’s Symphony No.7. I’m calling Dvorak’s Symphony No.9 his greatest and most enduring symphonic contribution. It was a close race between Dvorak’s Seventh and Eighth but I prefer the more dramatic Seventh to the more lyrical Eighth.
Number eight is the aforementioned Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5. As in the Dvorak Seventh and Eighth, the margin was slight between Tchaikovsky’s Fourth and Fifth.
Number seven is Brahms’ Symphony No. 1. This piece easily has the most ominous opening measures of any second-best symphony.
Number six is Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10. Again, his Fifth is his most popular and my personal favorite but we’re talking about greatness.
Number five is Sibelius’s Symphony No. 5. His Seventh is generally considered his greatest with his Second being the most popular but the Sibelius Fifth is special, even amongst other great “fifth’s” such as Mahler, Shostakovich, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky.
Number four is Mahler’s Symphony No. 2. I know there are many who would argue for Mahler’s Fifth or Third at this point but hearing Mahler’s Second as a college student was a life-changing event. I began proselytizing the uninitiated within my dorm.
Number three is Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7. I’m a Bruckner fan so this is probably a higher rating than most would give his Seventh. Once I grew out of my 20s, Bruckner became preeminent over Mahler which is why Bruckner has edged out his venerable student here. As an aside, any Mahler fan-boys who are middle-aged are suffering from symphonic arrested development, in my facetious opinion.
Number two is Mozart’s Symphony No. 40. No arguing with Mozart.
The gold medal for the silver medal symphonies goes to any Beethoven symphony that isn’t his Third. I’d say it’s probably his Ninth.