Nine nines to mark the birthday of Beethoven's Choral Symphony

Leonard Bernstein's DG NinthLeonard Bernstein's DG Ninth

On May 7, 1824, Ludwig van Beethoven co-conducted – alongside Michael Umlauf – the first performance of his Ninth Symphony, the Choral Symphony, at the Kärntnertortheater. The audience received the work with an ovation and, as the story goes, the deaf composer had to be turned to face his thrilled public at the work's conclusion. The Choral Symphony has gone on to occupy a very special place in music-lovers' hearts, a work for festivals, for celebrations or to mark momentous occasions. Its power has never diminished and, given a great performance, can still thrill, move and enrich. Here are nine favourite Nines, to celebrate the anniversary of this great symphony.

Schwarzkopf; Cavelti; Haefliger; Edelmann; Philharmonia Orchestra & Chorus / Wilhelm Furtwängler (Tahra, Music & Arts) Buy from Amazon

Furtwängler’s Bayreuth Ninth, recorded live by EMI to mark the re-opening of the Festival in 1951 after the war, is justifiably a classic, but this performance from the 1954 Lucerne Festival is a staggering achievement. Rarely has the journey from the first bar to the last seemed felt so epic, so inevitable, so powerful and so rewarding. (The Music & Arts transfer is very impressive.)

Nordmo-Løvberg; Ludwig; Kmentt; Hotter; Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus / Otto Klemperer (Testament) Buy from Amazon

Otto Klemperer’s Philharmonia Ninth from his HMV cycle is a monumental creation, as if hewn from a huge slab of granite, and it’s very satisfying, but this performance – recorded live at the Royal Festival Hall in November 1957 (about a month before the studio recording) – is, if anything, even finer. Tempi are pretty similar and the overall shape of the performance is noticeably the same, but the internal dynamism and energy is of another order. If you’ve ever wondered why Klemperer was so admired, here’s the performance that explains his genius.

Janowitz; Rössl-Majdan; Kmentt; Berry; Wiener Singverein; BPO / Herbert von Karajan (1962 DG cycle) Buy from Amazon

The crowning glory of Karajan’s first DG cycle and in turn crowned by a superb finale with a one of the finest vocal quartets on disc (few sopranos soar up in the heavens as effortlessly as Gundula Janowitz). The orchestral playing is superb and in the trio of the second movement the cellos sing as rarely elsewhere. There's a glorious inevitability here - not much struggle but many rewards!

Anderson; Walker; König; Rootering; Chorus and Orchestra / Leonard Bernstein (DG) Buy from Amazon

Another performance that proves the universal power of this great work – Bernstein gathered these performers around him in Berlin on Christmas morning in 1989 to mark the tearing down of the Wall. He tinkered with the text in the last movement making it an Ode to Freedom rather than Joy but in the circumstance that’s a forgivable emendation. The solo quartet may not be the most balanced but the performance has a colossal sense of occasion about it. 

Popp; Murray; Rolfe Johnson; Pape; LPO & Choir / Klaus Tennstedt (LPO Live) Buy from Amazon

Caught live in London’s Royal Festival Hall in 1992, Tennstedt directs a thrilling performance that is gloriously aware of the work’s architecture. Played at white heat, the finale erupts and though the chorus sometimes has trouble making itself heard over the orchestra, the sense of fulfilment by the end is shattering.

Wiens; Hartwig; Lewis; Hermann; NDR SO & Chorus / Günter Wand (RCA) Buy from Amazon Listen on Spotify (restricted to certain territories)

Every Wand performance was prepared with an almost fanatical attention to detail, but far from creating an interpretation of sterility, it allowed the performers the room to grow in the concert-hall or studio. This Ninth, with North German Radio forces, is a beautifully-judged, un-sensational, but enormously rewarding experience. This is a very, very satisfying Ninth and the orchestral playing is supremely classy.

Margiono; Remmert; Schasching; Holl; Arnold Schönberg Choir; COE / Nikolaus Harnoncourt (Teldec/Warner) Buy from Amazon

Harnoncourt’s Beethoven symphonies swept up Gramophone’s Record of the Year Award in 1992, and returning to this Ninth proves that it hasn’t aged – the humanity of Harnoncourt’s music-making is very much in evidence and the fusion of his period-instrument background and the fresh, open minds of the COE is wonderfully creative. Tempi are nicely judged and there’s a near-ideal climb towards the climax of the work, magnificently fuelled by the terrific Arnold Schönberg Choir. 

Orgonasova; von Otter; Rolfe Johnson; Cachmaille; Monteverdi Choir; ORR / Sir John Eliot Gardiner (Archiv) Buy from Amazon

It’s not surprising, given the prowess of the Monteverdi Choir, that the finale of the this Ninth is a thing of wonder, but there are plenty of wonderful surprises before that. The speeds at which Gardiner takes the opening movement, after a relatively normal opening, is very bracing and the slow movement unfolds swiftly but with a gloriously sweep. The playing of the ORR is wonderfully light on its feet and flexible – the performance sounds genuinely fresh and new.

Juntunen; Karneus; Norman; Davies; Minnesota Chorale and Orchestra / Osmo Vänskä (BIS) Buy from Amazon

The recent cycle from Minnesota has proved once again that Beethoven’s music can speak to every generation in the language of that generation. Osmo Vänskä’s Minnesota’s cycle, while on modern instruments, are obviously ‘of our time’ with lessons from period ensembles not only absorbed but gloriously fused with an ongoing and very vital tradition. There’s no point-scoring here, rather a wonderfully conceived, wholly convincing performance of this great work. This is Beethoven entirely without ego, the music placed absolutely central.

James Jolly

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