This is sometimes described as Chávez's most Neoclassical symphony; perhaps it was the necessary purgative to follow the composer's "Romantic" Symphony. Scored for strings alone, the Fifth eliminates the lavish woodwind, brass, and percussion writing at which Chávez was so adept, yet what's left is certainly not austere. Although the composer frequently sends the instruments into their strained uppermost registers, the textures are rich, thanks largely to the polyphonic writing as well as to some occasional polytonality.
The themes of the first movement, Allegro molto moderato, are so closely related that they could be regarded as variants of a single motif. The music chugs along on sixteenth notes, which both provide the ostinato rhythmic base and generate much of the counterpoint. The closing chord leads directly into the second movement, Molto lento. With its longer, sustained melodies, episodic development, and recitative-like writing for the various string sections, it provides a dramatic contrast with the first movement. Unfortunately, Chávez's writing here is sure to expose intonation problems in even the finest orchestras, which probably accounts for the work's neglect. A surreptitious march develops halfway through the movement, but subsides into a slow-motion seesaw section in which the strings play harmonics that evoke the ethereal glass harmonica. This mood is dispelled by the final movement, Allegro con brio. It's the most forthrightly Neoclassical section of the symphony, with its busy counterpoint and steady, sharply-marked rhythms. Stravinsky's shadow darkens these pages, as does, to a far lesser extent, Hindemith's. Indeed, some of these passages would fit easily into Stravinsky's Apollo. But Chávez ends the movement with a power and propulsion entirely his own, as well as with a series of chords that are, uncharacteristically, decisively final.