44. Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 "Choral"
Wilhelm Furtwangler at Bayreuth in the greatest recording ever of Beethoven's Ninth.
Oh friends, not these sounds!
Let us instead strike up more pleasing
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and more joyful ones!
-Ludwig van Beethoven’s declaration in the final choral movement of his Ninth Symphony
Thus we arrive at #44 on the list of the top 50 classical recordings of all-time. Occupying this place is the greatest recording ever made of the greatest symphony ever written. The recording is of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 9, Op. 125, “Choral” in a live recording that opened the 1951 Bayreuth Festival performed by the Bayreuth Festival Chorus and Orchestra conducted by the legendary Wilhelm Furtwangler. The occasion was the reopening of the Bayreuth Festival, founded by Richard Wagner, after years of being dormant following World War II.
Ludwig van Beethoven
There is a lot of information about Beethoven that is easily found online or in books. You may be interested in reading my previous Beethoven entry at #23 on this list. To read more about Beethoven himself, here is the link to my earlier entry:
Symphony no. 9 “Choral”
Which of us is not familiar with the famous “Ode to Joy” melody at the heart of this symphony? It is a melody we all hear growing up, and can still be found in many children’s toys and electronic music boxes, as well as TV shows and commercials. It is the greatest melody to come from the genius of Ludwig van Beethoven, and the symphony as a whole is one of the supreme achievements in the history of music. Today it remains one of the most often performed symphonies in the world, and a reminder of the prospect of joy and brotherhood that is possible if we only embrace it.
Beethoven composed the 9th, his last complete symphony, between 1822 and 1824, and it was first performed in Vienna on May 7th, 1824. It is the first major symphonic work to include voices. The fourth movement includes significant parts for four vocal soloists and chorus, with text taken from a 1785 Friedrich Schiller poem titled “Ode to Joy” with some additional text from Beethoven himself. The Philharmonic Society of London had offered Beethoven 50 pounds to compose a new symphony in 1822, an offer Beethoven accepted “with pleasure”. By this time, Beethoven was stone deaf and on the occasion of the triumphant premiere at the Hoftheater in Vienna, he had to be turned around at the conclusion of the symphony in order to see the huge applause the audience was giving his “Choral” symphony.
Beethoven’s Ninth is a work of incredible scope and proportion, certainly one of the most difficult works to pull off successfully at the time it was written (and even now). The symphony runs for over an hour, and there are a wide range of interpretive ideas and theories among musicians and musicologists about various aspects of the score. The Ninth, perhaps more than any other work, represents the conflict and transition between the Classical and Romantic periods in music. It breaks new ground in terms of form, structure, and length, and of course with the choral final movement. While it looks backward with a traditional number of movements and themes which still repeat in a traditional way, it also looks forward boldly with new harmonies and rhythms. The broad structures used, particularly in the first, third, and fourth movements, went beyond anything anyone had ever heard before. Also, the striving after an ideal, or a sort of Romantic notion of perfection, begins to find expression in the Ninth. While it is true the first three movements still have their roots in the 18th century, the final movement with its poetic and choral segments, most definitely breaks the mold.
Beethoven’s Ninth is in four movements, and below includes comments on the score by Richard Osborne, Konrad Wolff and William Mann:
Allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso - the opening is an ambiguous haze which gives way to the large main theme. The movement is a mass of sharply contrasted statements of the utmost terseness and intensity. The meaning of the first movement has been widely debated, because it pushes and pulls through various themes that also repeat, but doesn’t seem to be an end in itself. It is grandiose, but also beautiful in its detail. The theory that has been repeated most is the ambiguous opening represents chaos, and the resolution into the large theme represents creation. Whatever the case may be, it is a powerful and uniquely Beethoven beginning.
Molto vivace - in the form of a scherzo, the opening is like a bolt of lightning which leads to a dance-like fugue. Between the 3 three-note motif at the beginning is the powerful echo on timpani, which portends blazing drama. In fact, the timpani drums form an important part of this movement, and the woodwinds and trombones are prominent. The movement is in sonata form, and in the middle of the movement is a trio, and then the main theme returns a second time. The trio returns again briefly before an abrupt ending.
Adagio molto e cantabile - consists of a theme with variations, separated by two slightly quicker interludes punctuated by brass and percussion, but which returns to serenity at the end. There is a sublime quality to the movement, which includes tenderness and a poignant horn solo at the second theme. One of Beethoven’s most beautiful creations, even though it runs for between 14 and 20 minutes on average.
Finale - marked “presto” this epic finale begins with a harsh dissonant note, perhaps surprising given the joyful theme soon to be arriving. As the opening chord, this loud and bracing chord in D minor definitely gets your attention. Immediately we are drawn into melodrama, as the dominant ideas of the previous three movements pass momentarily in review before the cellos and basses reject them. The woodwinds offer a new idea which is enthusiastically accepted. The cellos and basses, as it were the composer humming to himself, expose the whole tune once. This is indeed the “ode to joy” tune itself, so familiar the world over. The rest of the orchestra tries it over with the addition of flowing and expressive inner harmonic parts; the tune is given a sort of ending, but then pandemonium returns in a more extreme form and so the baritone soloist introduces the choir, song, and Schiller’s tremendous Ode. Variations are sung by the soloists and choir, with an interlude sung by the tenor, leading to a runaway progression that ends in the cathartic and full-throated choral and orchestral return of the full “ode to joy” theme. Beethoven breaks down the theme and lyrics further, which leads into the coda which races headlong to the finish.
Some have said the fourth movement is almost like a symphony within a symphony, and at a length of 20-25 minutes on average, this movement alone is as long as some entire symphonies. The fourth movement, according to Charles Rosen, follows the same pattern as the symphony as a whole: Theme and Variations, Scherzo, Slow section which begins Andante maestoso, and the fugue style finale.
As we have mentioned, the text is largely taken from Schiller’s “Ode to Joy”, with a few introductory phrases by Beethoven. Use the link below to read the entire text sung in Beethoven’s Ninth:
The symphony was dedicated to the King of Prussia, Frederick William III. While the reception of the symphony across the ages has been overwhelmingly positive, the final movement in particular had its early detractors, with some calling it “cryptic and eccentric” or “the product of a deaf and aging composer”. The great opera composer Giuseppe Verdi said of the final movement, “The alpha and omega is Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, marvelous in the first three movements, very badly set in the last. No one will ever approach the sublimity of the first movement, but it will be an easy task to write as badly for voices as in the last movement. And supported by the authority of Beethoven, they will all shout: "That's the way to do it...". It is true that some of the vocal writing is impossibly high to sing for even the best professional choruses. Nevertheless, Verdi’s opinion is very much in the minority.
One of the most significant controversies with Beethoven’s Ninth is the tempi from the original metronome markings, and whether they should be used in performance practice. Some of Beethoven’s original metronome indications, meaning the tempo set for different sections of music, are almost unbelievably fast. There is speculation that Beethoven’s own metronome was not calibrated correctly, and thus his markings cannot possibly be correct. In performance tradition, conductors have historically ignored Beethoven’s indications, and have slowed things down considerably. However, with the historically informed performance movement, there has been an attempt to take Beethoven at his word, and to actually play it the way it is written. This has proven to be controversial as conductors such as Roger Norrington, John Eliot Gardiner, Sir Charles Mackerras, and many others made new recordings based on the faster tempi. Others such as Simon Rattle, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, David Zinman, and Claudio Abbado (in later years) took more of a middle ground, adopting tempi that were quicker than tradition dictated, but somewhat slower than the HIP purists. Older and more traditional conductors such as Furtwangler, Klemperer, Kempe, Karajan, Bernstein, Bohm, Solti, Fricsay, and Ormandy generally slowed things down considerably in the belief that they were presenting Beethoven’s intentions as closely as possible while maintaining the feeling of an epic drama as it unfolds with realistic tempi.
The German conducting tradition from the mid-19th century through at least the middle of the 20th century was to present Beethoven’s Ninth as a monumental piece of art not to be rushed through. Wagner himself suggested some “improvements” to the orchestration, as well as more flexible tempi as he often used in his own works. Wagner’s ideas caught on, and remained standard practice for over a century.
So we are left with the question of what Beethoven’s actual intentions were, and as the late conductor Sir Charles Mackerras says, “A glance at the score will show that Beethoven had a very different concept of how his symphony should be played. The metronome marks show the tempi that the Master wanted, and if they occasionally err on the rapid side, due to the then completely deaf Beethoven pounding on the piano to his nephew Karl, they must approximate his wishes…in general, the markings are quite clear and I believe that every Beethoven interpreter should take them seriously.”
Mackerras’ viewpoint is not universal by any means. Personally I want to know what actually works best and sounds best in practice or on record, without regard to orthodoxy or literalism. You will read more about my own view on this below in the reviews of specific recordings.
Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony has influenced countless other works by composers such as Brahms, Bruckner, Dvorak, and Bartok. In particular, the main theme in the finale of Brahms’ Symphony no. 1 is a paraphrase of the “Ode to Joy” theme, as Brahms even admitted. Some have derided Brahms’ First by calling it Beethoven’s Tenth. You are probably also aware that the Ode to Joy theme has been used for any number of TV show introductions, commercials, national anthems, as well as the religious hymn “Joyful, Joyful, we adore Thee”.
In the movie Immortal Beloved, panned by some critics as being too melodramatic and taking too many liberties, was accurate when it showed the premiere performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in Vienna. Beethoven had insisted on conducting the performance, but due to his deafness, the organizers of the concert refused his request. However, they did permit Beethoven to stand on the stage alongside the conductor. It was clear to all present that Beethoven’s deafness prevented him from conducting correctly, but nonetheless he stood and waved his arms to the music. When the symphony finished, Beethoven remained in front of the orchestra, but had no idea the audience was applauding behind him until one of the female soloists turned him around to see the adulation.
It is now clear, for all of the Ninth’s innovation, controversy, structural and performance issues, it remains one of the greatest symbols for European unity, for humanity, and for all that is noble and great in our world.
At one time in my life I was obsessed with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and in addition to having over 30 different recordings, I was able to attend at least four live performances. I became intrigued by the different interpretations, conductors, recording qualities, and soloists. But looking out over the sea of recordings of the Ninth, one recording stands above them all and demands the highest respect. Wilhelm Furtwangler’s recording with the Bayreuth Festival Chorus and Orchestra at the reopening of the Bayreuth Festival in July 1951, recorded live by EMI, is a mountain which other recordings have never summited. The soloists were Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Elisabeth Hongen, Hans Hopf, and Otto Edelmann. Clocking in at a healthy 74’32”, this remains one of the greatest recordings ever made. While no single recording of such a great work will ever tell us everything we need to know about a piece of music, this one comes the closest in my opinion. The spiritual intensity, concentration, atmosphere, quality of the singing, and insightful conducting have rarely been matched in the history of classical music.
The history of this particular recording is rather interesting. Originally broadcast and recorded live in 1951, it was not released on LP by EMI until 1954. What was not realized for many years was that legendary producer Walter Legge sat on the recording for a while, and instead of releasing it as it was broadcast, decided to supplement certain parts with sections that actually came from some of the rehearsals. The EMI (now Warner) release was edited and “improved”, and thus is not the unabridged live performance. It still sounds pretty good in its most recent remastering that was done in 2021, and released as part of the recent retrospective of Furtwangler on Warner Classics. It is well worth hearing.
However, in recent years two other releases on other labels have presented the recording in a different, and I believe preferable, light. In 2008, Munich based Orfeo records released the same recording, but taken from the concert recording based on the tapes archived in Bavarian Radio. It has also been remastered, and is presented in significantly improved sound (a by-product of which is rather bright sound in parts, which for me is not a bad thing). Also on the Orfeo release there is no applause before or after, if that makes a difference to you. For me, this is the best version to hear.
Finally there is the most recent incarnation from BIS records of the entire radio broadcast performance, complete and unadulterated. It feels more like an event here, as it includes welcoming announcements, program announcements, boisterous applause, and closing remarks. The trouble for me is this performance has not been touched up and remastered much at all, leading to quite a bit of background hiss, cloudy or congested sound in louder sections, and not nearly as much clarity.
As Rob Cowan says in Gramophone Magazine,
“Wilhelm Furtwängler’s way with Beethoven’s Choral Symphony approximates a shared ritual. It is quite literally spellbinding, whether in the slowly clearing mists and rocky ravines of the first movement, the Dionysian dancing of the second, the sublime sweetness and stillness of the third or the wild vicissitudes of mood and execution in the choral finale, where following the biblical-sounding low string recitatives at the beginning and a long, suspenseful pause, Furtwangler ushers in the ‘Ode to Joy’ as if from the far distance. The theme itself builds with ecstatic abandon, wrapped in expressive counterpoint, while Furtwangler has the Bayreuth chorus hold chords where other choirs would run out of breath. The march episode (Hans Hopf, tenor) forges impulsively forwards and the fugue that follows argues a furious response…at the close of the work Furtwangler takes Beethoven at his word with a breathless prestissimo, hurtling towards the heavens at breakneck speed…I’m not claiming this performance will suit every mood or even every taste, but if and when it does hit target it will leave you changed forever.”
Wilhelm Furtwangler was known, and to many is still considered, the greatest Beethoven conductor that has ever lived. His way with Beethoven was legendary, and a world away from modern performance practice, especially those that advocate for historically informed performances. Furtwangler was flexible in his direction and tempos, fully interpreting the music, not just robotically running through the notes. With Furtwangler you feel the emotion, not just in the notes themselves, but also in the pauses between notes. This was his genius. He understood the epic drama that is Beethoven, and could inspire his forces to create music of fearsome awe.
You can’t really talk about Furtwangler without mentioning the Nazis, unfortunately, as Furtwangler was used by the Nazis to advance their agenda. In the All Music Guide, David Brensilver says,
“When the Nazis came to power in 1933, Furtwangler strongly and publicly opposed the Nazi regime, despite pride in his German heritage, and refused to give the Nazi salute, even in Hitler’s presence. In 1934, when Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler was banned by the Nazi party, Furtwangler unilaterally resigned from all his posts, aided numerous Jewish musicians under Nazi persecution, and refused to conduct in Nazi-occupied areas. Furtwangler eventually fled to Switzerland at the suggestion of Albert Speer. When, in 1936, Furtwangler was offered the post of director of the New York Philharmonic, he was dissuaded from accepting the position by anti-Nazi sentiment. After the war’s conclusion, the Allied command cleared Furtwangler of charges of being a Nazi sympathizer, although the American government did not “denazify” him until 1946.”
It should be noted that Furtwangler disliked recording, and claimed that recordings could never capture the mood or aesthetic present in a performance. Nevertheless, Furtwangler did make recordings, many of which are widely acclaimed interpretations. Unfortunately for us many decades later, Furtwangler was never afforded the best recording technology available in the post-war years, when most of his recording took place. Therefore, many of his recordings suffer from below par sound, a lack of depth and balance, and a lack of presence and clarity.
Furtwangler recorded Beethoven’s Ninth several other times as well, including a famous war-time performance in Berlin from 1942 (now on the Archipel label), where allegedly many of the top Nazi brass were in attendance. While that performance is electric with an undertone of dread and doom that is understandable given the war, and although it has many of the same virtues as the 1951 recording from Bayreuth, ultimately the sound is just too compromised for it to be fully enjoyed. Another option is a recording from the Lucerne Festival in 1954 on the Audite label, loved by many listeners and critics as well, although I don’t find it to be as urgent or compelling as the Bayreuth recording.
The music critic Richard Osborne writes,
“Though Furtwangler conducted the Ninth more than 90 times between 1913 and 1954, he generally reserved it for special occasions. None was more special, musically or politically, than the reopening of the Bayreuth Festival in 1951 - not least because of Wagner’s own influence on the performing history of the Ninth. When Wagner heard the conductor Habeneck conduct the Ninth in Paris in 1839, it was a revelation. Far from gabbling the first movement, turning it into a rag bag of uncoordinated themelets, Habeneck’s meticulously rehearsed players sang it over a continuously modified pulse. This was to be Wagner’s way, and Furtwangler’s: a flexibly conceived discourse attentive to every nuance of Beethoven’s elaborately inflected text.
In 1951, Bayreuth clearly wanted the Ninth to be conducted by the work’s greatest exponent, but Furtwangler, not uncharacteristically, was racked by indecision. As the minutes of the Association of the Friends of Bayreuth reveal, he said “yes” three times, “no” five times and only finally agreed to appear after receiving assurances that the new Bayreuth was going to be ‘Richard Wagner’s’ Bayreuth, and not Herbert von Karajan’s.
After the performance of the Ninth, producer Walter Legge appeared in Furtwangler’s dressing room and announced: ‘A good performance, but not as good as it might have been.’ It took Furtwangler the better part of 48 hours to recover from this barb. According to his wife, Elisabeth, an unscheduled roadside stop and walk in a wood during the journey home was what finally calmed his mind.”
As it happened, Legge stuck to his judgment that there was still a better performance of the Ninth to be had from Furtwangler, and later it was said Legge wanted the 1954 recording from Lucerne to be commercially released. When negotiations to release the Lucerne performance broke down, only then did Legge go back and release the Bayreuth recording, albeit as mentioned patched with sections from rehearsals.
After listening to this, and many other Ninths, from Furtwangler and so many others, I am left with no doubt that the 1951 Bayreuth recording, especially in the 2008 Orfeo incarnation, is a recording for the ages and should definitely be in the top 50 recordings of all-time.
Dear listener, I should forewarn you that this is a historical recording and as such it has sonic limitations. Furthermore, it is taken from a live recording at Bayreuth, a venue location notoriously difficult to record well. The Orfeo remastering is the best to my ears, allowing you to hear just how cosmic and shattering this performance actually is, but you may also want to sample the other releases of the same performance to decide for yourself.
Other recommended recordings of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony
There is no shortage of great recordings of the Ninth, but I am rather particular about recordings I admire. While in many other pieces from the Baroque, Classical and early Romantic period I often enjoy historically informed performance recordings played on period instruments with brisker tempos and very little vibrato, with Beethoven’s Ninth it just doesn’t feel right to me. That is why you will not see here recommended recordings of the Ninth by conductors such as John Eliot Gardiner, Roger Norrington, Sir Charles Mackerras (though I truly admire Mackerras in other recordings), Jos van Immerseel, Savall, et al. It is a subjective outlook for sure, and others will disagree. Of course you can sample their recordings and make your own decision.
The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus of St. Hedwig’s Cathedral conducted by Ferenc Fricsay, with soloists Irmgard Seefried, Maureen Forrester, Ernst Haefliger, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Recorded by Deutsche Grammophon in 1958, this is one of the most satisfying recordings of the Ninth in clear early stereo sound, led by one of my favorite conductors. I firmly believe if not for his tragic death, Fricsay may have become as well-known as Karajan, Bernstein, Szell, and Ormandy. The solo singing and involvement by chorus and orchestra are tremendous.
The Boston Symphony Orchestra, Chorus Pro Musica, and the New England Conservatory Chorus led by Erich Leinsdorf in a recording for RCA Victor from 1969. Leinsdorf adopts brisk but appropriate speeds in a reading that is assertive and uplifting. This is one of the best recordings made during Leinsdorf’s time in Boston, and with a young Placido Domingo as the tenor, Sherrill Milnes in his prime as baritone, and with Jane Marsh and Josephine Veasey more than serviceable, this is very enjoyable. Sound is warm and detailed.
The North German Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Chorus of North German Radio, conducted by Gunter Wand and recorded by Deutsche Harmonia Mundi for RCA Red Seal in 1989, this recording has remained one of my favorite versions of the Ninth. Wand was a relatively obscure conductor for most of his career, spending time directing several second-tier orchestras in Germany. But toward the tail end of his career, Wand recorded this Beethoven symphony cycle with the North German Radio Symphony Orchestra in very good sound, and after Wand became much more known. The entire set is reflective of Wand’s common sense approach to conducting the German masters, with fairly brisk but still traditional tempos, no huge surprises, and very clear sound. The soloists were not huge stars at the time, but I particularly enjoy the tenor of Keith Lewis. All the soloists are quite good. Wand is predictable, but here that is exactly what is needed.
Otto Klemperer recorded the Ninth several times, but most notably with the Philharmonia Orchestra for EMI and Walter Legge. However, it is his live 1956 recording on the Archipel label with the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, the Toonkunstkoor Amsterdam, with soloists Gre Brouwenstijn, Annie Hermes, Ernst Haefliger, and Hans Wilbrink, that is his finest. There are some typical Klemperer features such as keen attention to rhythms, textures, and dynamics. But overall this is a more engaged, fiery, and gripping account than his EMI recording, and in good sound for 1956. This is good stuff.
The late German conductor Klaus Tennstedt conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra for many years, most notably in acclaimed live recordings of Mahler’s music. However, he also made several Beethoven recordings, and his 1992 recording of the Ninth from Royal Albert Hall in London is the best among them (although not released until 2007). Released on the LPO’s own label, the sound balance is not ideal and parts are recorded at a low level, as was common from the venue and the chorus is recessed. You may need to crank the volume a bit (beware the timpani and trumpets though, they are shattering). Tennstedt was consistently better live than in the studio, and this is a perfect example. This is a broad, atmospheric, electric reading with Tennstedt doing his best Furtwangler impression. Bass Rene Pape is outstanding and tenor Anthony Rolfe Johnson is brilliant as usual. Truth be told the great soprano Lucia Popp is past her prime here but still distinctive, and Ann Murray is solid.
Finally, Leonard Bernstein conducted a version of the Ninth at the Schauspielhaus in East Berlin, with Freiheit (Freedom) replacing Freude (Joy), to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall during Christmas 1989. This concert was performed by an orchestra and chorus made up of many nationalities: from East and West Germany, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, the Chorus of the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, and members of the Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden, the Philharmonischer Kinderchor Dresden (Philharmonic Children's Choir Dresden); from the Soviet Union, members of the orchestra of the Kirov Theatre; from the United Kingdom, members of the London Symphony Orchestra; from the US, members of the New York Philharmonic; and from France, members of the Orchestre de Paris. Soloists were June Anderson, soprano, Sarah Walker, mezzo-soprano, Klaus König, tenor, and Jan-Hendrik Rootering, bass. It was the last time that Bernstein conducted the symphony; he died ten months later. It was recorded live by Deutsche Grammophon. While Bernstein’s earlier 1979 recording on DG with the Vienna Philharmonic is more alert and has better singing (especially the bass of Kurt Moll), this Berlin recording has a great sense of occasion and then there is the opportunity to change the word joy to freedom. One of my absolute favorite recordings.
I hope you enjoy Beethoven’s Ninth as much as I do. Happy listening!
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