25 Essential Beethoven Recordings: The Ninth Symphony

Friday, November 16, 2012

Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is arguably his most personal statement, and one that's open to a wide spectrum of interpretations. Herbert Von Karajan recorded this seminal 1962 version.

In 1962-63, the Austrian conductor recorded a complete cycle of Beethoven's nine symphonies. It was one of four such cycles that he made throughout his long career and arguably his best. The playing of the Berlin Philharmonic is dynamic and muscular, and there's none of the hedonistic sheen that came to define Karajan's later interpretations. Recorded in Berlin's Jesus Christus Kirche, the orchestra comes through with admirable fidelity.

The recording's significance has been reflected in sales. Karajan is, by most accounts, the most prolific conductor of all time with 900 entries in his discography, but this was his one million-selling symphony recording.

An alternate choice: For a very different (and idiosyncratic) choice, consider another Berlin performance, recorded on Christmas Day, 1989, just six weeks after the Berlin Wall came down. Led by Leonard Bernstein, it featured musicians from both East and West Germany, plus the four occupying powers who had waged war against Germany in World War II: Great Britain, France, Russia and the United States.

In the final movement, the word "Freiheit" (Freedom) was substituted for the word "Freude," making it an ode to freedom rather than an ode to joy. Although traditionalists resented the tampering with a revered German classic, the gesture was well received around the world. This concert was subsequently released by Deutsche Grammophon.

What is your favorite recording of the Ninth? Who do you prefer: Karajan or Bernstein?

Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 "Choral"
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Herbert von Karajan, conductor
Deutsche Grammophon
Available at Arkivmusic.com

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Comments [13]

Richard Kavesh from Nyack, New York

Karajan was a wizard of sound and excelled at pieces where sheer sonority is at a premium - Tchaikovsky, Debussy, Puccini, Sibelius, Bruckner, for example. However, when it comes to the Viennese classicists of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and Schubert, there are many, many conductors who do any one or all of these much composers better than he did. Five that I can think of are Bruno Walter, George Szell, Karl Bohm, Guenter Wand, and Leonard Bernstein. When they conduct, you hear the composer. When Karajan conducts, you hear Karajan's Beethoven, not Beethoven's Beethoven.

Sep. 20 2014 06:16 PM
Mats from Sweden

Furtwängler -42.

Aug. 16 2014 09:37 AM
Francesca Giancotti from New uork

My choice: karajan. Particularly the 1963 recording. This was my introduction to Karajan's conducting which contributed to my being addicted to the sound that only he can create.

Jul. 26 2014 07:22 PM
joe

Norrington. After you hear it everything else is painfully ponderous

Apr. 29 2014 01:20 PM
elvis goedhart from Suriname

The picture on the poster of "Mozart coming Soon" is Beethoven's?

Apr. 12 2014 12:09 PM
Paul

The best Beethoven's 9th is Ficsay's

Dec. 09 2013 07:04 AM
David Blum from Massachusetts

How ironic, that you showcase the Von Karajan recording next to the Bernstein. Von Karajan was a Nazi. He joined the party in Austria in 1933 just after it became apparent that jews would be expelled from orchestra positions, and used his Nazi affiliation to advance his career. Then, after the war, he lied about it. "Alle menschen werden Brüder" indeed. I'll cast another vote for a Furtwangler recording, preferring the Bayreuth performance. Although Furtwangler stayed in Germany, he publicly opposed Nazi policy and sheltered jews. Plus, while Von Karajan is polished and smooth, Furtwangler's performances show the humanity of the 9th.

Feb. 10 2013 02:45 PM
Ralph Steinberg from New York City

My favorite recording of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony? That is easy to answer: The 1954 Lucerne Festival performance with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by the unreachable Beethoven conductor, FURTWAENGLER.

Feb. 08 2013 01:08 AM
Les from Miami, Florida

My favorite recording is the one Toscanini and the NBC Symphony made in March and April of 1952 at Carnegie Hall, after the broadcast performance. He said of it that he was almost content after all the years and performances of it he conducted. I would love to have heard --- which is impossible --- his performance of it with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, which was his first American performance as a symphony conductor, on April 13, 1913 with the best soloists he said he ever had (Frieda Hempel, Louise Homer, Carl Jo"rn and Putnam Griswold), and "...was good orchestra...", which for most, (if not all of us) means a superlative orchestra. (The program startred with Wagner's "A Faust Overture", followed by "Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks", and concluded with the Ninth Symphony. I also own many recorded performances of that imperishable score that Mr. Lane enumerated, but for me, the tempos and the forward thrust of the line seem so right. Also, to cite one example, in the Fourth Movement, where the first and third stanzasa are sung simultaneously, I hear the timpani's ostinato and the horns' doubling the vocal line with more clarity than in other versions. Between Bernstein's and Karajan's three versions that I've heard, I'd choose Bernstein's for the historical import as well as the "combination orchestra" assembled for the occasion of the Berlin Wall's eradication, as well as for his choice of substituting "freiheit" for "freude". I would also include Furtwa"ngler's granite-chisled and mighty performance with the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra of 1951, on the occasion of Bayreuth's re-opening. So I'd pick Toscanini, Furtwa"ngler and then Bernstein. It's a pity Carlos Kleiber never recorded or conducted the Ninth Symphony, as far as I know. I hope I'm wrong.

Jan. 11 2013 09:56 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

HERBERT VON KARAJAN'S output, 900 recordings and performances in nearly all the classical music formats, is unico, extraordinary. His recording of the Ninth Symphony is, IMHO, definitive !!!
BEETHOVEN's song literature, including his 158 songs and his cantatas and the Choral Symphony all attest to the fact that he, like Mozart, knew the potentials and options for writing for the voice and for instruments. Few composers have had such knowledge and pursued it to any way like such an enormous extent. GREAT recorded performances of Beethoven's symphonies are so numerous and my own, from childhhod record collecting days, include performances by maestri Bruno Walter, Arturo Toscanini, Sir Thomas Beecham, Artur Bodansky, Leonard Bernstein, Zubin Mehta, Sir Georg Solti, Serge Koussevitsky, Clemens Krauss, Erich and Carlos Kleiber, Leo Blech, Erich Leinsdorf, Wilhelm Furtwaengler, Fritz Busch, Walter Damrosch, Christian Thielemann, and Herbert von Karajan. Beethoven's symphonies, opera, concertos, sonatas, string quartets, overtures, chamber music generally, cantatas, and song literature, is so pervasive and his world consciousness and basic humanity construct an icon unparalleled to and past his own era. At Juilliard, I studied his oeuvre and , in those days, all singers learned the concert rep of Beethoven , Schubert , Schumann, Wolf and Grieg, whether they would be opera singers or concert singers . So much of our treasured masterpieces, vocal and instrumental, are unknown quantities to most Americans. THANK YOU WQXR FOR CELEBRATING BEETHOVEN !!! Beethoven's symphonies are the ABCs of most essential single composers' oeuvre of the symphonic literature. Wagner and his contemporaries and their successors all recognized the epic achievement of Beethoven. I am a romantischer Wagnerian heldentenor and director of the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute at 418A Main Street, Boonton, NJ . I have sung four solo concerts in the Isaac Stern Auditorium of Carnegie Hall. As part of my Ten Language Solo Debut concert at the Isaac Stern Auditorium of Carnegie Hall, I sang the Gott ! welch dunkel hier ! aria of Fidelio. it can be heard from the live performance on my three websites, www.WagnerOpera.com, , www.ShakespeareOpera.com, and www.RichardWagnerMusicDramaInstitute.com. It received rave critical notices in newspapers and magazines. Among the greatest singers famous for their Beethoven performances in opera and concert my voice teachers Alexander Kipnis, Friedrich Schorr, Martial Singher, John Brownlee, Karin Branzell and Margarete Matzenauer. Other famous singers with extensive Beethoven "rep" were Kirsten Flagstad, Helge Roswaenge, Birgit Nilsson, Set Svanholm, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Jerome Hines, Jon Vickers, Jean and Eduard de Reszke, Regina Resnik, Leonie Rysanek, George London, Emmanuel List, Elizabeth Rethberg, Lotte Lehmann, and Helen Traubel..

Nov. 25 2012 11:59 AM

Hard to compare von Karajan and Bernstein since they recorded the 9th in different eras, and recording technology had come a ways since von Karajan's version, when Bernstein compiled the stellar cast for the Ode to Joy. Since the four soloists have such difficult music, it takes almost superhuman effort to make the quartet smooth and cohesiven (for my ear, anyway): but Bernstein was up to it as conductor and he assembled Talvela, Verrett, Domingo and Gyneth Jones, truly a dream ensemble, in 1970. It's only available on DVD and in some YouTube clips but it's the best I've ever heard, and the final strains of the chorus are unbelievable.

Nov. 20 2012 12:32 PM
Neil Schnall

Small correction: Karajan, although a significant part of his career was in Germany, was not German but Austrian. Like Mozart, he was born in Salzburg.

Nov. 16 2012 04:35 PM
steve from Belgium

These symphonies have been in my music collection for a very long time and I even bought several versions: LP box from 1963, LP box from 1969 (the previous Beethoven Edition dating back from 1969), first cd edition, second cd edition, again in 2009. So, does this make me a Beethoven's Nine Symphonies conducted by Karajan addict?
The other versions are also okay but Karajan was mad about the technical evolution that was going on in that era: from analogue to digital. Karajan also made a complete cycle of the Ring Des Nibelungen from Wagner in the early sixties, this cycle is also considered a masterpiece, a must have for karajan addict like me.

Nov. 16 2012 06:30 AM

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No composer impacted the course of Western music like Ludwig van Beethoven. The events of his life are the stuff of Romantic legend, his works permeate concert halls and he remains a cultural icon outside of classical music, turning up in movies, TV soundtracks, commercials and pop songs. Throughout November, WQXR celebrates Beethoven's work through concert broadcasts, multimedia projects, marathons and other features.

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