Beethoven’s ninth: The final choice

Welcome to the 113th work in the Slipped Disc/Idagio Beethoven Edition

Symphony No. 9 in D minor op. 125 (part 6)

(1 How Beethoven wrote it here. 2 How the world changed it here. 3 How do you choose a Ninth here. 4 Furtwängler or Karajan here. 5 The Beethoven 9th that stopped the world here)

We are down to the wire. From almost a century of recordings and 150 versions, I am about to whittle down the list to a manageable dozen.

Inevitably, personal experience conditions my choices. The first Ninth that I attended was, I think, with Otto Klemperer, though I may only have seen him on television. Whichever it was, the impregable figure of Klemperer looms large in my early consciousness and the sound that he conjures at the opening of this 1960 recording possesses such authority that, once heard, one cannot imagine it being done in any other way. The Philharmonia Orchestra sounds more German than British and the presence of the short-lived Fritz Wunderlich among the soloists is enough to give this production everlasting status.

My next experiences were at the Royal Albert Hall, mostly BBC Proms, with the phenomenal pack of chief conductors that London had in the 1980s – Claudio Abbado, Klaus Tennstedt, Georg Solti, Bernard Haitink. The storm and release of a Tennstedt performance is not easily described, nor was it captured faithfully on record, as the EMI editors liked to tinker about and leave things all neat and tidy before they put a record on the market, but I am glad that something survives of this most dramatic and appealing of conductors.

Georg Solti’s Chicago recordings require no recommendation. The choice is between 1972, when he was new to the city, and 1987, when he was starting to tire. The later performance, on the other hand, has Jessye Norman.  I’m still sticking with 1972: big, brash and unexpectedly beautiful in the strings.

The question people keep asking is, why did Carlos Kleiber not attempt the Ninth when he so comprehensively conquered the fourth, fifth and seventh symphonies? There is no answer to this condundrum except to refer you to the 1952 recording of the Ninth made by his father, Erich Kleiber, in Vienna. Carlos modelled his technique and repertoire on his father’s. If he could not do better than Erich, he ducked out of the contest. The Erich Kleiber recording is exquisitely shaped, just a volt or two short of combustion. Watch his classic long-baton technique in this rare filmed document from the 1949 Prague Spring (the singing is atrocious, the female chorus visibly under-nourished).

Many Americans my age swear by Arturo Toscanini, even though they know him only on record. If it’s voltage you want, Toscanini owns the electricity board. The excitement can be breathtaking. But both of his NBC orchestra recordings in 1939 and 1952 are maimed by wretched sound. His return to La Scala in 1946 after a decade of exile has cathartic qualities and a numinous dimension.

If the name René Leibowitz rings a bell, you are a certified record freak and should seek treatment without delay. The son of Russian-Jewish refugees, Leibowitz played piano in Paris jazz clubs until he discovered Arnold Schoenberg and converted to ascetic modernism. Teaching the post-War German composers at Darmstadt, he reinvented himself as a conductor and landed contracts from various record companies, including – believe it or not – the Readers Digest, which wanted an affordable Beethoven set that would not frighten the horses in Pleasantville.

Leibowitz was scoffed at for pandering to lowbrows, but his performances with Beecham’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra are altogether very good and, in the ninth symphony, overwhelming. Eminently civilised, almost understated, he builds a tension not unlike Karajan’s but less threatening and with a deep empathy with Beethoven’s language. The American musicologist Richard Taruskin finds his performances more authentic than a historically informed performance (HIP) specialist such as Christopher Hogwood.

I shall deal briskly with the HIPsters. John Eliot Gardiner and L’orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique (1994) are too fast, too noisy, too rough-and-tumble. Roger Norrington is more reasoned, rounded, less in-your face with the London Classical Players (1987) and borderline beautiful with the Stuttgart radio orchestra (2000). Nikolaus Harnoncourt has the best of both worlds with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe (1991), early pitch and tempo on modern instruments, but his tempi could be tauter. David Zinman applies some period practices in his fine 1999 Zurich account. Which would Beethoven have chosen? Probably the loudest, largest orchestra.

Entering the 21st century, I am more impressed by Simon Rattle with the Vienna Philharmonic (2002) than with his Berlin repeat in 2016. Mariss Jansons (Munich 2007) and Mikhail Pletnev (Moscow 2007) represent the Russian Beethoven tradition without challenging the centrists. Riccardo Chailly gives an exceptionally refined performance in his Leipzig cycle (2011) while Christian Thielemann keeps to the middle of the autobahn (Vienna 2011). Among recent attempts, I find much to like in Philippe Jordan with the Vienna Symphony (2017) and much promise in Andris Nelsons with the Vienna Philharmonic (2018).

In 2019, the year of his retirement, the 90 year-old Bernard Haitink gave a valedictory Beethoven’s 9th with the Bavarian radio orchestra. Once a workhorse of the record studios, Haitink had mellowed into a repository of several traditions – Dutch, German, French and English – delivering a blended Beethoven that, while globalised, was at all times, intensely personal and heartfelt. The Adagio may not be as sleek as his younger performances but the finale is full of compassion, comprehension and human transmission, a reading to treasure.

I wrote early on in this survey that a conductor needs to understand and empathise with Beethoven’s circumstances before he or she can grasp the ninth. The performance I have kept to last is Rafael Kubelik‘s (Munich, 1975), the work of a Czech musician who endured the German occupation of his country, fled the Communist regime, recoiled from American conservatism and finally dedicated himself to creating a world-class ensemble in Bavaria. Kubelik knew tragedy and deprivation in his life yet always maintained a Beethoven-like faith that tomorrow might be a better day. He assured me in 1982 that Communism would fall one day and he would return home. In 1990, he did. His Beethoven ninth is full of that irrepressible belief in a brighter future. I can never hear it without thinking he might be right.

So, my selection of indispensable Beethoven 9ths runs like this:

Wilhelm Furtwängler, Berlin 1942

Jascha Horenstein, Vienna 1956

Otto Klemperer, Amsterdam 1956

Ferenc Fricsay, Berlin 1957

 George Szell, Cleveland 1961

René Leibowitz, London 1961

Herbert von Karajan, 1962

Georg Solti, 1972

Rafael Kubelik, Munich 1975

Klaus Tennstedt, London 1992

David Zinman, Zurich 1999

Riccardo Chailly, Leipzig 2011

Bernard Haitink, Munich 2019

Too many, I know. If I had to choose one to save my life? Fricsay.

Or Kubelik.

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  • The remarkable late Kubelik concert Ninth is better recorded here from 1982, with a rather more flowing scherzo and adagio, and the bonus of Fassbaender : https://www.prestomusic.com/classical/products/8545266–beethoven-symphony-no-9-missa-solemnis-live#reviews
    Rather Furtwänglerian, with a climax to the first movement which is reminiscent of what I wrote in an earlier post about F’s visionary first movement– the underscoring of the climax by observing Beethoven’s 35 bat fortissimo marking for the timpani. The coupled Missa Solemnis, with its intensity and rhythmic freedom at certain changes of harmony and scoring, might also be considered ‘Furtwänglerian’ had this conductor attempted the work.
    The first ‘world-class’ Ninths I ever attended were from Tennstedt and the LPO at the Proms and the RFH, including I guess the 1992 version linked in Idagio. Tennstedt seemed more revered by the London audiences than any other conductor appointed at that time to a London orchestra.

    • The 1975 Kubelik was recorded in quadraphonic surround, and released that way on SACD by Pentatone just before they stopped issuing 1970’s surround recordings. It’s definitely worth a listen.

  • I know I took time with Karajan 1977, Suitner, Bernstein and Schmidt-Isserstedt in my early years. However, I made a switch to the period practice versions the moment I heard Gardiner’s version. I know that music lovers might disdain him for his roughshod approach, but I couldn’t help favouring his robustness in comparison to his colleagues. Unusually, I felt that Norrington’s first version missed the moments of high emotion and suffered from the faulty speeds in the Trio of the Scherzo and the Turkish March variation in the finale. Also, I felt that Harnoncourt didn’t always stick to a set tempo in his Teldec version.

    There are two versions of the Choral I would like to mention, but they aren’t on Idagio. Mackerras’s Hyperion version has drive, vision and incandescence. Also, I have been taking to the Antonini version. The interplay between the sections, the incisive attacks and the uniquely sound all justify this recording.

    • Period performances don’t get enough credit in these Beethoven discussions. I have a symphonies set with Anima Eterna under Jos van Immerseel and love it.

      • Yes you are right. The Freiburger recently recorded the ninth, the review was disappointing, the Wiener Akademie one is much better.

        The Wiener Akademie set on Alpha is great, recorded in venues used by Beethoven. String sound is quite different, the big improvement is the winds are clearer, I love the blast from the horns in the fifth and Eroica.

        Here listen to their Eroica.
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0WzsRVQQFmY

      • And I would say especially with the 9th when it comes to the choir part. The big, mushy, unfocused singing is the one thing that really gets me in some of the classic analog recordings.

  • Played the Beethoven 9th with Rene Leibowitz in 1967….simply overwhelming…some years after his RPO recording….with Schönberg”s “Survivor From
    Warsaw” as the lead-off…. (A program I was privileged to
    repeat much later with Andrey Boreyko.)

    • Erich Leindorf made this same combination with his Boston Symphony farewell in April 1969. Both works were recorded for RCA. Beethoven worthy of a listen for sure, but the stand-out is the Schoenberg, with Sherrill Milnes as narrator. If a more powerful recording exists of the Survivor from Warsaw, I am not aware of it.

      • Yes I was just thinking the same thing. When I was in college in Boston I was an usher at Symphony Hall, lo those many years ago. I got to know Leinsdorf who was always most gracious to me and he invited me to the recording session for these works, his last, I believe with the BSO.
        Interestingly not long ago I was in the car listening to the radio and it was playing the Beethoven Ninth. I tuned into the middle of it so I did not know who was playing but I was mightily impressed with it, more than normally.
        Well you guessed it, it was Leinsdorf and the BSO, and I was there at the creation!
        By the way, Munch also recored a blazing rendition of the work with the BSO, but Norman did not mention it. But I was glad to see that Norman did mention the Leinsdorf as one to reckon with.

  • One thing only on your Kubelik adulation; the man who finally dedicated himself to creating a world-class ensemble in Bavaria was Eugen Jochum, not Kubelik. Jochum left us three recorded cycles, one with the BPO and the BRSO on DGG, then the Concertgebouw and the LSO, both on Philips.

  • I was holding my breath….
    ….that you might say Rattle.
    Thank you for not doing that.
    But you dismiss Toscanini merely because of “wretched sound”?
    Hmmmm…. I think you lost some street cred there, Norman.

  • Mr. Lebrecht, you didn’t ask but if I had to chose one, it would be Mengelberg 1938. So poignant that it hurts. It was issued on CD by Archive Documents, London – people you may know?

    • I do not quite understand the reference to Rene Leibowitz as being some sort of curate’s egg, known only to discographic oddballs who still live in mom’s basement. He had a considerable reputation as a musician and scholar, and made many recordings that run of the mill record collectors (including opera fans) of his time would have known. A modest example is the two Liszt Concertos on RCA Victor with Leonard Pennario, always a big selling name in America, as soloist. Major label and major soloist and, while perhaps not a major conductor, a known quantity to record collectors of the time, but evidently not to our host.

      I am not too familiar with the entire Reader’s Digest series of recordings, although I believe Earl Wild did all the Rachmaninoff concertos for them, and as I recall the Reader’s Digest LPs were treasured for the high quality of the recorded sound, and the more than decent pressings by RCA Victor. (I do know the old Time/Life series of LPs and they had some marvelous stuff in particular their box of modern music, by no means low brow) but again they commissioned and sold a set of newly recorded Beethoven symphonies either for their readers or as a premium to encourage readership, and I fail to see why that should be regarded as low brow or pandering.

      But to the topic at hand, I myself am perfectly satisfied with my Toscanini/NBC Symphony circa 1952 LP and CD, and the sound is among the better Victor efforts on Toscanini’s behalf, perhaps not quite up to that of the William Tell Overture. I think it is exciting and dramatic and moving and has good singing.

      Another worthy entry, perhaps surprisingly so, is Leopold Stokowski in stereo, which progresses more or less normally and impressively and then right at the end, a classic Stokowski touch: reasoning that the trumpet of our time can do more than the trumpet of Beethoven’s time, and that in the final measures when orchestra (with trumpet) are really pressing to the finish line, but in the original the trumpet abruptly drops out because, well, because it’s gotta drop out, Stokowski channels his inner Beethoven and adds it back in. And it works and it sounds right. In fact having once heard it, the original sounds so wrong to me.

      And I have mentioned it before and do so again, the man it seems so many critics like to sneer at and kick, Eugene Ormandy, put forth a really impressive 9th in his complete stereo set for Columbia. His own record label did him the disservice of trimming some repeats when they squeezed it onto one LP, don’t get that version.

  • So it’s Fricsay or Kubelik then Norman. These are both great performances and show what fantastic back-catalogues many of the largest companies have. For me, one thing that is a breath of fresh air about the recording world that we currently live in is that there isn’t an inevitability to the fact that Mirga G T, Sakari O, Daniel H, Robin T, Yannick N-S, etc are going to be forced to record Beethoven cycles, whether they are ready to or not, or have anything interesting to say. When I worked in the record industry (some time back), and when issuing Beethoven cycles was as common as muck, I remember well some EMI marketing person saying to me that they were excited about Muti’s new Beethoven cycle. All I could think to say was “Why?”

    • Well perhaps it was because the Philadelphia was not known as a “go to Beethoven orchestra”, like the nearby Cleveland Orchestra under Szell. But Ormandy did record the Nine to some acclaim and as far as I know, the Muti was only the second time the orchestra recorded the Nine.
      By the way, during the Ormandy days in Philadelphia, William Steinberg in neighboring Pittsburgh recorded the Nine with his orchestra to much acclaim.

  • It must be the Furtwangler, VPO, 30 May 1953 on ICA, the best sound quality so far, voices are clear and there is a grand load of metal bashing at the end. This is the repeated concert from earlier that same year which Brendel attended and where Furtwangler collapsed and recovered. The recording was never released outside Japan until now. (US controlled Rot-Weiss-Rot radio) they took the master tape away when they left Austria.

  • Karajan’s 77 ninth was my gateway ninth and it’s still one of my favourites. I love Furts 42 and Bayreuth 52 and Lucerne 54. Toscanini’s NBC ’39 (beautifully remastered on Andrew rose’s Pristine label) his apocalyptic Teatro Colon 41 and Mengelberg’s tight yet well sprung, controlled explosion that is his 1940 performance. Klemperer’s ninths are pretty amazing musical monoliths too.

  • Second your recommendations of Fricsay (certainly for its best-ever solo quartet) and Leibowitz (for the Beethoven cycle generally). The “storm and release” quality of Klaus Tennstedt is better realized in the 1989 London Phil at the Proms Beethoven Ninth (BBC Music), warts and all, than in the 1992 LPO version.

    Furtwängler’s 1942 Ninth is sui generis, and the recorded sound is irretrievably ghastly. His 1954 Lucerne version is the best played, sung and recorded representation of this conductor in this music (best-heard on the Tahra remastering, if you can find it).

    Among more recent Ninths: Charles Mackerras’ with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (Signum Classics) is a sleeper HIP choice, and Herbert Blomstedt’s Ninth (and cycle generally) with the Gewandhaus (Accentus Music) will rank among the reference recordings.

    It hadn’t occurred to me to hear Kubelik in the Ninth. Now it has.

    • The 1942 Furtwängler sounds somewhat better in the BPO’s collection of WF’s wartime concerts in Berlin. I think there’s also a Pristine XR remastering which ought to be a further improvement – I’ve not heard it.

    • What do you think of Blomstedt’s earlier recordings of the Nine with the Dresden orchestra? They sound pretty good to me and I have noticed that with Blomstedt he does not change his conception of how the music should go very much through the years.
      The only thing he said about his Dresden Nine was that he did not separate the violins which he regretted. He did separate them in the Leipzig recordings.

      • Some years ago I spoke briefly with HB after a performance of Beethoven 5 with the Gewandhaus orchestra in Cardiff. I remarked that it was different from his Dresden recording. “Of course,” he replied, “they play it slowly since Wagner conducted them.” Or words to that effect.

  • I would like to hear your opinion on Paul Kletzki’s version, under Czech Philharmonic on Supraphon (1976). Have you heard? Thanks

  • Is it too late to throw in one more candidate? If time permits I’d like to add in Kubelik’s 9th in memoriam, Otto Klemperer. An intense rendering of Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music precedes the Beethoven. This is part of the BBC Legends series. The orchestra is the Philharmonia and the quartet and chorus sing with great feeling. On my desert island this is the favorite.

  • I think that the Felix Weingartner version recorded in 1935 with the Vienna Philharmonic has a lot going for it. There is an amazing amount of detail that can clearly be heard in this recording.

  • While the miking of the radio performance is not great, strange as it was a radio performance, this is one of the very top most electrifying performances of Beethoven’s 9th.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q6fePiXRMTo

    Schmidt-Isserstedt’s recording with the Hamburg Radio Symphony from 1951 blows some of the ones mentioned in the article away. Talk about electricity! An educated ear can fill in what the microphone balancing missed. Here is the finale of the 4th movement. Ludwig Weber is absolutely stentorian from “O fruede”, a young Birgit Nilsson, Maria v. Ilosfalvy and Walther Ludwig round out the soloists and the chorus is superb! For my money, this is one of the truly greats! Please listen and you will undoubtedly agree.

  • Out of this list in my opinion only Furtwängler, Karajan and Fricsay are serious contenders for the „greatest“ recording.
    But none of these I find as great as Karajan‘s live recording from 1977: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=oFMsrkh3ock&t=1542s

    With regard to Furtwängler, I think the 1937 live recording from Queens Hall has the best soloists of all of Furtwängler‘s 9th as well as a better rehearsed Berlin Phil than in 1942. In addition to this its his only 9th, where the 1st movement is not too slow for my taste. Unfortunately the sound is primitive.

    Fricsay: really amazing! But the sour soprano of aging (or not in good shape during the sessions) Seefried and the dull tenor of Haefliger I cannot enjoy at all.

    From newer recordings I find Nelsons much better than many from your shortlist.

  • Norman, this whole series of posts on Beethoven recordings has been wonderful and enlightening to follow. The multiple postings on the 9th symphony are especially informative and thought provoking. They put SD way above the crowd. I have a half dozen 9ths in my music library but have now added the Fricsay. Will now check out the Kubelik. As I have mentioned before, you have a blind spot regarding the Toscanini 1939 set. You should download (40 euro) the Pristine restoration by Andrew Rose. I am listening to the 2nd movement of the 9th as I write this – the sonics are world class. I do not work for nor gain anything by mentioning the Pristine restorations – I have more than a dozen of them. It’s the only place to go for a lot of Furtwangler – the Wagner Rings for example. And some of the old Met Wagner and Verdi recordings. You owe it to yourself to experience the Toscanini 1939 Beethoven recordings in really good sound. Again, thank you for these posts.

  • Fricsay: beautifully recorded and performed, but there’s one flaw: Fischer-Dieskau is too loudly miked in his “puffed up” solo entry–and he’s, arguably, all wrong for the part, anyway.

  • Some very interesting posts here. I have always gone along with the legendary 1977 Karajan as the go-to version to have but of course there are so many! Agree about Gardiner which I found metrical and disappointing. Klemperer is a very slow, effortful climb to joy but worth a listen. Must listen to the Kubelik again which is on my shelves.

  • FYI: You criticize Gardiner for being too fast; Zinman is about the same time on the whole (+/- minute here and there), and Chailly is only 3 minutes slower on the whole.

    • Chailly includes the repeat of the A section of the Scherzo in the da capo. When you remove that his version of the Choral runs for 61 minutes. Just like Mackerras’s two versions.

  • With the hundreds of recordings the Ninth has had, it’s not surprising there are so many favorites. I have two factual corrections to make and a few favorites to mention.

    Norman, in an earlier installment, you said the 1929 Oscar Fried was the first Ninth rec. I have a CD of a 1926 Weingartner with, I think, the LSO. This precedes the Fried as well as the 1935 Weingartner VPO, which was part of the first recorded cycle. As one might fear, the sound on the 1926 is wretched, so that I can’t even tell if it’s a good performance (whereas the 1935 sounds rather good for its era). At the least, the Weingartner 1926 is a historic relic and perhaps the first-ever Ninth recording.

    Novagerio, you’re right about Eugen Jochum except for this: Jochum’s third and last cycle, with the LSO, was on EMI (now Warner), not Philips.

    I too find the Fricsay BPO a great performance — one of the best ever. I’m surprised by the omission of Schmidt-Isserstedt VPO on Decca –another all-time great rec. Another one worth hearing is the Romantic, rather Furtwanglerian rec. from Cluytens BPO on EMI. But any final list needs to include two other Furtwanglers that have been mentioned by others: 1951 Bayreuth and 1954 Lucerne. Karajan had better sound and execution, Toscanini perhaps had more surface excitement, but no one surpassed Furtwangler in spiritual expression in the Ninth. In this he was sui generis, especially in the slow movement.

      • Norman, the 1926 Weingartner with the LSO, as I mentioned in an earlier post, with a terrible English translation, times out at 61:43. Fried’s 1928 Berlin recording is 62:04. Both can be considered complete. Both recordings are available from Pristine. I cannot vouch for Seider-Winkler’s 1923 acoustic rendition mentioned below.

    • And finally, a VERY minor point. It was the 1926 LSO Weingartner 9th, not the 1935 with the VPO, that was part of the “first” Beethoven cycle, and marketed by Columbia records as such for the Beethoven centennial in 1927. Weingartner was the conductor for the 5th (too fast, especially the second movement, at least 2 of his four other recordings are better) 6th (fabulous, and his only recording) 7th (better than his later recording, but I’m a minority on this one) 8th and 9th. The 1st was conducted by Sir George Henschel (his only recording as conductor) 2nd-Beecham (an INCREDIBLY fast first movement, MUST be heard to be believed) 3rd, Sir Henry Wood (an amazing Scherzo) and the 4th with Hamilton Harty.

      • ≈ good summary, Brian Bell, many thanks. Some great names there, besides Weingartner’s” Hamilton Harty, Henry Wood, Sir Thos. Beecham, Bart., C.H., and espeially Sir Georg Henschel, Brahms’s friend and Lieder and vacation partner, who recorded also as singer. .

  • Which 4 movements would you put together from your favorite recordings to create your perfect performance?

    (Of course, if one is tech savvy enough, one could clean up the sound, slow down and speed up tempo without altering pitch, etc, but that’s really re-engineering everything to the point of genetically modifying the recording, so I wouldn’t go that far.)

  • Sorry but I consider Muti’s recording of this to be he best recording with the Chicago Symphony. So do 23.5 million viewers of it at Youtube. It has a great cast too: Eric Owens, Camilla Nyland, Ektarina Gubanova, and Matthew Polenzani. Nelsons is also good with this both in Leipzig and Boston.

  • Thanks to alll who did not mention Josef Krips and those tennis balls in a tin cylinder. Krips, Leibowitz, Ansermet were able conductors, fine in many works, but over-parted in this company, and not only because two o.

    David Zinman’s Zuerich Tonhalle set was unabashedly inexpensive, played from corrected modern editions and brisk, but enjoyable and instructive. Furtwaengler just overwhelms and plays all others off the field, so for me there’s just no contest. Not for everyone: one wan, weary protester mildly objected, “But I don’t want my socks blown off every time.” Some resist Beethoven on the same grounds.

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