The Friday Symposium: Assessing the Recorded History of Beethoven’s Ninth

One of the great joys of classical music is delving into the often rich recorded history of a particular composition. Conductors, often lampooned in popular culture, are all very serious students of the music they perform and their directorial decisions significantly shape the music we hear. How? Tempo is the most obvious lever, but so are dynamics, and how the various parts are woven together. Some conductors will ask you to be more forceful on certain notes or, speaking as a former string player, use your bow to create more or less stacatto, legato or other techniques that help to shape the color of the music the audience hears. Then there is the very abstract notion of feeling–what is perceived as a march by one conductor is a dance to another. And, it must be said, the frequent and highly debatable practice of “correcting” the score.

There is, I submit, no symphony capable of such a wide range of interpretive choices at Beethoven’s Ninth. This is, of course, typical of Beethoven’s Late Period compositions–Beethoven forces peformers to make interpretive choices. Here is a very, very short overview of some of the highlights.

Furtwängler/Berlin (1942)

Where to start? Easy: Wilhelm Furtwängler. The revered former chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic (1922-1945) appears to have had a supernatural connection to Beethoven and the Ninth in particular, bending Beethoven’s will to his own, as the dozen or so recordings he left to posterity will attest. So let’s start with the most famous, from March 1942. This performance was part of a celebration for Adolf Hitler’s birthday and, accordingly, a few words about Furtwängler and the Nazi regime are in order. There is no question that Furtwängler cooperated with the Nazis and was held in high esteem by them (although perhaps somewhat less so than party member Herbert von Karajan, see below). Yet historians suggest that Furtwängler sought to oppose the Nazis from within. I have not studied this issue and offer no opinion on the matter, save for the evidence presented by this recording. It is, quite simply, the most unique in history. Beethoven’s Ninth is nearly always uplifiting in spirit. Not so here. Furtwängler transports the mustic inot something angry, tragic, full of dread, and, somewhat amazingly, utterly without the feeling of hope and redemption than appears to be hard wired into the finale. This is Exhibit A on how a great conductor can meld even the most formidable music to his purpose. This is the stuff of nightmares. Instead of radiant joy, we get “we are screwed.” This performance is iconic, but to get a sense of how Furtwängler could manipulate the music, compare this recording to those he did in 1951 or 1954. Like Beethoven, Furtwängler is speaking in tones to those in his audience and if the murderers in his 1942 audience knew what he was saying, he wouldn’t have lived long afterwards.

Toscanini/La Scala (1946)

For many Americans of a certain generation, the epitome of conducting was embodied in the great Arturo Toscanini. Certainly, grounded as he was in the operatic tradition of his native Italy, Toscanini knew how to best amp up the drama–fast tempos. But Toscanini was not simply a clock watcher, his belief in the power of simple, unadorned peformances that hewed closely to the score was the seed that bore fruit in the Period Instrument Movement. You will be hard pressed to find a more exciting performance than this one.

Klemperer/Philharmonia (1957)

To be fair, there is only so much historical sound I can take and my favorite recordings nearly always are from the digital era. That said, the great Otto Klemperer, recording at the dawn of the stereo age, is always at his best with Beethoven. And this recording with the London Philharmonia, while a bit slow for my taste, is one of the true imperious recordings of the Ninth out there. The Ninth starts at track 42 on this compilation.

Karajan/Berlin (1962)

Let’s get this out of the way: Herbert von Karajan was a Nazi. Party member and beneficiary of the regime, his crime against humanity is a permanent stain on his character. That said, no serious overview of the recorded history of Beethoven can ignore him. Along with Furtwängler, he reigns supreme in this material and recorded the Ninth about a dozen times during his very long career (I did manage to catch him at the end live at Carnegie, even though my father would have prefered me to be protesting outside). Here he is, at the peak of his very forbidable powers, totally in control of both the Philharmonic and the Vienna Opera Chorus. Karajan viewed this as his best recording, and the public agreed. It sold more than a million copies.

Gardiner/L’orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique (1994)

The Period Instrument (or Historically Informed Practices) Movement took the baton from Toscanini and ran with it. John Eliot Gardiner’s 1994 account has long been my reference standard for the work–until I started writing this blog. While I nearly always prefer period instruments for music composed prior to 1830, the exception just might be Beethoven’s Ninth. Beethoven simply wasn’t recording for the 1820s during his Late Period–he was composing for the final evolution of the orchestra. Nothing was too big or loud for Beethoven here and I suspect that he would prefer modern instruments for this work. Nonetheless, Gardiner’s incredibly brisk pace injects a ton of drama into the proceedings and remains a firm favorite.

Chailly/Gewandhausorchestra

The Gardiner recording has been my favorite since its release nearly 30 years ago. But Chailly has supplanted Gardiner, much to my amazement. I cannot deny that the sound production is a major reason why–it is just perfectly recorded: Open and spacious, while perfectly balanced. The fine details shine through in this supremely elegant performance. Also, Chailly strikes the extact right tempos while Gardiner is, on balance, a bit too fast for me (I can’t believe I just wrote that, but it is true). My one quibble would be that the naturalist soundscape of the trio in the second movement isn’t as perfectly realized as elsewhere, but it is a tiny complaint, reflecting that a truely definitive recording of the Ninth will forever elude us. Interestingly, the historic Gewandhaus orchestra traces its roots back to Beethoven’s time and was the first orchestra to perform a cycle of his symphonies. It seems fitting that 200 years later, they should be the ones to get closest to the ideal.

The foregoing scratches just the very surface of one of the richest catalogues in the history of recorded music. A few others to consider:

Fricasy/Berlin (1957)

Szell/Cleveland (1961)

Solti/Chicago (1972)

Kebelik/Munich (1975)

Harnocourt/Chamber Orchestra of Europe (1991)

Norrington/Stuttagart Radio Orchestra (2000)

And when you are done with those, there are about 200 more.

Like Beethoven’s Ninth, a great red wine is capable of tantalizing depth and broad scope of expression, vintage after vintage. Brunello di Montalcino, from a lovely town in southern Tuscany, is probably my favorite wine. It is made entirely from one specific clone of the sangiovese grape and remains one of the most frustrating wines on the market. Young Brunellos are absolutely delicious. For a year or two after release, they are an explosion of fruit and flowers, most notably cherries, but plenty of blackberry and other black fruits at the back end that hint at pleasures to come with time. Brunellos are highly acidic and very tannic on release, and that tart almost astringent note at the end upon release will soon come to dominate the wine, rendering it practically undrinkable for a decade. A decade on, the wine enters its prime drinking window. Those fresh fruit and flower flavors are no longer present, but the wine has turned sweeter with age, bringing forth notes of candied cherries, figs and nuts. Those harsh tannins (the drying flavors so prominent in black tea) have mellowed into a chocolately goodnesss, while the acidity has also mellowed and the end notes seemingly go on forever. Old Brunello is just magical–as good as Italian wine gets.

As a rule, the better the bottle, the less good it will be on release and the more time it will need in the cellar. Happily, Brunello had fantastic years in 2010 and 2012, which are now just coming into their own. A few bottles to look out for:

Ciacci Piccolomini, Brunello di Montalcino, “Pianrosso”

Altesino, Brunello di Montalcino, “Montosoli”

Casanova di Neri, Brunello di Montalcino, “Tenuta Nuova”

Each of these will run around $125 retail in a well-priced shop, but each also produce less expensive Brunellos. The most important thing is vintage. 2010/2012 should be the target this year.