Beethoven’s Ninth, Best Recordings

{Ed Note:  I asked DlphcOracl his opinion on the best releases of Beethoven’s 9th, as it has always been my favorite Beethoven and perhaps my single favorite classical work. The below post is his informative and entertaining response. In fact, I would say it is one of the best classical reviews I have read anywhere.}

The finest Beethoven’s 9th??  Well, NOW you’ve opened up a can of worms!!

I would guesstimate that over the last half century there have probably been 3-4 dozen recordings or reissues that have been released and EVERYONE has a strong opinion about which one is THE finest available.  There are so many things to consider here: quality of performance, vocal soloists, chorus, recorded sound and technology, etc., that must be taken into account.  Frankly, it is almost easier to begin by stating what I do NOT like in certain  Beethoven recordings available:

  1. Period instruments and/or a chamber orchestra.  For gawd’s sake, if ever a piece demands a large scale, grand treatment with a full, radiant sound it is Beethoven’s Ninth.  I cannot tell you how much I detest the use of  historically correct period instruments or a small scale chamber orchestra that can fit inside the parlor or drawing room of an 18th century mansion or castle.  To paraphrase Willy Shakespeare:  “A plague o’ all your houses”!!  Sadly, many of these wretched recordings have superb recorded sound and brilliant interpretations.  Nevertheless, avoid all of them as if they are packaged in CD jewel boxes filled with anthrax.
  2. Reissues of VERY old performances.  While I am normally very tolerant of vintage reissues, I am much less forgiving in Beethoven’s 9th.  I do not want to hear my Ninth as if I have two pillows wrapped about my head or as if someone is singing the vocal parts through a megaphone.  Therefore, ALL performance that pre-date the onset of modern recording technology (i.e., the early 1950’s) are strictly verboten for this listener.

Well, just what DO I like??

Recordings of Beethoven’s Ninth are like potato chips — you cannot have just one and neither should you.  Therefore, I will recommend that you obtain not one, not two, but THREE or FOUR performances of this masterwork for reasons I will explain.

  • Conductor: Wilhelm Furtwangler, Bayreuth Festival Orchestra, CD label: Orfeo D’Or  (1951).

Over the past 100 years perhaps no other conductor is associated more with performance of Beethoven’s Ninth than Wilhelm Furtwangler.  This live performance from July, 1951 is of immense historical importance.  It marked the reopening of the Bayreuth Festival and it was an important landmark in Germany’s post-war recovery, following more than a decade of Nazi rule and a devastating war than killed nearly ten per cent of its population  and left the country in ruins.  Furtwangler conducted the Ninth on the Festival’s opening evening.  Furtwangler was, musically speaking, a controversial conductor and he believed in radically reinterpreting the pieces he conducted, seeking to leave an audience with his interpretation and his emotional reaction to a conductor’s work.   This worked well in some pieces, less well in others.  However, in the hands of a world-class conductor such as Furtwangler the results were almost always interesting and worth a listen.

For many classical music fans this is an indispensable performance which brings tremendous insight and emotion to the Ninth and to the reopening of Bayreuth.  For others, not so much.  Put me in the latter camp — I am not taken with this interpretation and performance.  Beethoven, unlike many composers, was highly specific in his tempo markings and often specified them in metronomic terms.  The extreme changes in tempo Furtwangler employs in this performance may well work for you and create an unforgettable experience but it is not what Beethoven intended or instructed.  In particular, the 3rd movement (Adagio Molto) which clocks in at nearly 20 minutes may be Furtwangler’s private mediation but it is soporific.  My meditation during this movement stemmed from fading in and out of sleep as Furtwangler plodded through this movement.  Simply put, it is excessively slow and robs the symphony of it flow, vitality and forward momentum.  The recording itself is also problematic.  The orchestral playing is uneven, the chorus and vocal soloist placements poor, the quartet of vocal soloists undistinguished (Elizabeth Schwarzkopf excepted), and the audience noise is somewhat obtrusive.  Finally, the recorded sound is quite limited and it cannot be recommended as a top choice.

Incidentally, there is a controversy regarding the editions of this performance on the EMI label (which is how it was originally released) and the much later reissue from the Orfeo D’Or label.  The EMI edition is not a true live recording.  EMI’s director, Walter Legge, was dissatisfied with the live performance (especially the orchestral playing and chorus) and he cobbled together a CD which contains portions of Furtwangler’s rehearsals together with sections from the live performance.  The true live recording on the Orfeo label was reissued from  a tape made by the local Bavarian Radio, long thought to be lost but subsequently rediscovered.    The sound quality on the Orfeo is better than that on the EMI label but both are sub-par.  In summary, this recording (Orfeo) is NOT a primary choice but should be obtained for its historical significance and to see how you respond to the extreme tempo liberties and deeply personal, subjective approach  Furtwangler takes in this performance.  My reservations aside,  many music lovers consider this performance their first choice.

  • Conductor: Wilhelm Furtwangler,  Philharmonia Orchestra, Lucerne Festival Chorus (1954),  CD label: Tahra Hybrid SACD – DSD (import France) or Music and Arts label.

Furtwangler conducted this performance while he was gravely ill and famously remarked to his wife after the performance that “he had one foot in the next world” as he conducted this performance.  He realized that this would be his final live performance of the Ninth and he was correct — he died three months later.  This is the best of the many reissues of Furtwangler’s nearly dozen live performance captured on tape for a variety of reasons.   First and foremost, the three years that separate this performance from his historical 1951 performance at the re-opening of the Bayreuth Festival result in considerable improvement in the recorded sound.  Second, the Philharmonia Orchestra is far superior to the motley crew that made up the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra.  Finally, it is Furtwangler’s penultimate performance and it has a serenity and majesty that stand alone amongst the Furtwangler performances.  In this recording, the ultra-long 20 minute Adagio (3rd movement) is a better fit and this recording is, in a sense, a summation of Furtwangler’s lifelong association with  and deep commitment to  this work.

Both CDs have acceptable sound but the preferred CD is the Music and Arts re-issue released in 2007 which has a careful sound restoration by Aaron Z. Snyder.  Incidentally, if you read the reviews of this CD by classical music lovers who purchased it on amazon.com they will wax eloquent and rhapsodic about its amazing sound.  Frankly, these people must have listened to this recording in their car CD or a boom-box while wearing a hearing aid.  I have a state-of-the-art audiophile system and am VERY critical about sound quality.  I attend a large number of live performances and my reference point is what music sounds like during a live performance in a concert hall with better than average acoustics.  This is not close.  The best that can be said is that the sound quality is the best of the Furtwangler’s Beethoven Ninth reissues and that it is better than we have a right to expect for a live performance conducted at a small venue in 1954.  It is of sufficient quality that it does not detract from one’s enjoyment of this performance but it is hardly up to par with modern CD and LP releases.

  • Conductor: Herbert von Karajan, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Vienna Singverein chorus (1976),  soloists:  Tomowa-Sintow, Baltsa, Schreier, and van Dam.

Along with Wilhelm Furtwangler, Herbert von Karajan is probably the other great Beethoven conductor associated with the German music tradition over the past one hundred years.  While many other conductors have conducted memorable performance of the various Beethoven symphonies, von Karajan and Furtwangler have consistently conducted excellent performances throughout their lifetimes.  Of von Karajan’s three recordings (1964, 1976/7, and 1982) the 1977 recording is, by far, the best of the lot.   His tempi in the slow Adagio (3rd movement) and the finale (Presto) are well-judged and they have a spiritual intensity and appropriate burst of energy, exuberance and optimism respectively.  His unfortunate tendency in the 1970’s and 1980’s  to produce an ultra-glossy/ultra-smooth, overly refined sound from the BPO that often sucked the life out of the music is nowhere to be found in this performance.  The vocal quartet is excellent and, in particular, tenor Jose van Dam is exceptional.  And, of course the BPO play superbly for von Karajan.

It is also instructive to compare von Karajan’s treatment of the slow adagio movement to Furtwangler’s.  Von Karajan achieves even greater spiritual intensity to my ear yet he clocks in at nearly three minutes less than Furtwangler.  One does not have to slow the pace of the 3rd movement to extremes to achieve the desired result.  The recorded sound is clear and vivid, perhaps a bit too much in-your-face, as is common with DGG.  This is clearly one of the best of the modern recordings of Beethoven’s Ninth and it is an easy recommendation to make.

In purchasing this performance, try to avoid at all costs the reissue on DGG Galleria, DGG’s budget label.  Instead, pay up a few dollars more to obtain the 2-CD set which also includes the 5th and 6th (Pastoral) symphonies (DGG 474260-2.  These CDs have been re-mastered with 24-bit digital recorders and the sound is far superior to the budget label Galleria CD.  And, as a bonus, you also get von Karajan’s excellent 5th.  The Sixth??  Not so much.

And now for something completely different.  As good as the above three CDs mentioned above are and the reasons for owning them, they are not my first choice, which is:

  • Conductor: Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Vienna State Opera chorus, soloists: Sutherland, Horne, King, and Talvela (1966),  London/Decca.

Say what??  Trust me one this one.  Of the dozens of CD recordings of Beethoven’s Ninth currently available this one is, for me,  the closest to a perfect recording of Beethoven’s Ninth as I will explain below.   Many classical music lovers will disagree but that is what makes collecting classical music fun and interesting.

Some background information.  Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt (HSI) was one of those conductors revered in Europe but little-known in the commercial, star-struck United States.  He (HSI)  and Herbert von Karajan (HVK) were the first two conductors to record a complete cycle of Beethoven’s symphonies in the studio in the modern sound era (1955 to present).  For many years classical music lovers debated which was the better of the two Beethoven cycles and the answer, of course, is that each set had its merits and high points.  The Ninth and the 6th (‘Pastoral’) were the crowning glories  of HSI’s cycle and there is much to recommend his Ninth as a primary choice.  HSI’s may be one of the most radical Ninth’s precisely because it isn’t radical.  It is thoroughly immersed in the German tradition,  adheres fairly closely to Beethoven’s instructions regarding proper tempi and does not have any need to distort them beyond credibility.  He understands that Beethoven’s masterwork has enough dramatic tension and emotional extremes as it is written and he is confident enough to serve as Beethoven’s conduit, gently shaping the symphony and letting Beethoven’s human story unfold naturally.  His performance is not slavish to Beethoven’s instructions and markings, by any means.    However, they are more expansive in pace, richer in texture than most modern recordings, yet there is enough “Sturm und Drang’ to satisfy any Beethoven music lover.  What sets this performance apart ?

The playing of the VPO is gorgeous and the recorded sound is warm, full and clear, typical of the Decca sound in the 1960’s.  I would guess that this was recorded in the VPO’s home, the fabulous Musikverein Concert Hall with its world-famous acoustics.  Additionally, the 1960’s London/Decca team were far more successful at reproducing what concert hall sound is about than DGG or most of the other CD labels.  Finally, and most important, in the triumphant final movement the quartet of vocal soloists on this disc (Marilyn Horne, Joanne Sutherland, James King, and Martti Talvela) are the finest on any CD performance available, bar none.  Because Beethoven wrote the vocal parts high many of the soloists on other recordings are reduced to shrillness and unpleasant screeching.  All of these soloists here have large voices and they sing with ease and vocal splendor.  Finally, the choral contribution from the Vienna State Opera chorus is better recorded than most.  The balance between chorus and orchestra is ideal and the chorus is not shoved into the background.  If you obtain this CD and listen to it after listening to myriad other recordings, you will be shouting “Freude! Freude!! ” and your evening will truly be an ‘Ode to Joy’.

One final note: if you are an audiophile and/or you have a home sound system that has been carefully assembled to simulate what concert hall sound is like, the difference between the London/Decca team and DGG’s typical recording technology will become painfully clear.  For audiophiles,  DGG is rarely if ever used to demonstrate the capabilities of a high-end sound system.  DGG CDs have what audiophiles refer to as a digital haze or glare.  The strings and brass have an unpleasant edge, the recording lacks warmth and fullness or tonal bloom, and the front-to-back sound stage is compressed and poorly reproduced.  DGG gives crystal clear recordings that are bold, etched and defined, but not realistic.  Of course, both the London and DGG recordings are far superior to any of the Furtwangler re-issues.

Treat yourself and purchase all of these CDs, listen to and compare their various merits and demerits while enjoying a glass or two of fine wine.  Ultimately, I believe you will return again and again to Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt’s long-forgotten but masterful interpretation and recording.

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