Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Beethoven's 9th Recording Recommendations

When I'm doing a lot of writing and reading, I distract myself in music by doing surveys of some of the pieces I love best. Believe me, I listen to much much else than Beethoven's 9th and much much more recent music, but here is what I've written about after too many years of immersive listening:

Every major conductor in the history of the profession has performed it dozens of times, it’s impossible to come up with ‘just one.’ But here are some thoughts about particularly strong performances and what make them so.
Any talk of Beethoven 9 recordings has to begin with Wilhelm Furtwangler and Arturo Toscanini. To this day, their two diametrically opposed conceptions of Beethoven exist, neither of which tells the whole truth about Beethoven because they’re more concerned with the style in which Beethoven is played than the substance. Generally speaking, the best Beethoven performances come somewhere in the middle that bypasses questions of tempo and orchestra size  and note-length and go straight to the content.
When one speaks of Furtwangler’s many, many radio performances of Beethoven 9, there are usually three of his at least nine (maybe 12 I think…) recordings which come up before the others. For me, greatest of them all is the so called ‘Hitler 9th’ which was supposedly recorded live in Hitler’s presence (a thesis which was completely disproven). 1942, right in the middle of the war. Is it a statement against Nazism, for Nazism, or not a statement at all? Who cares. What matters is that it’s a searingly intense but incredibly broadly paced (the other two particularly famous ones are even slower). The sound is horrible, and it almost makes the sense of occasion even more intense. Furtwangler is one of those musical geniuses who do things that seem completely irrational and make them work. Nobody should take 18 minutes in the opening or 20 minutes in the slow movement or perform the final coda twice as fast as everybody else. And yet in Furtwangler’s wavy baton, it works.
Unless you’re a musical genius like Furtwangler or Barenboim, I don’t see any justification for stretching Beethoven’s slow movements to 20 minutes. On the other hand, there are other kinds of great conductors like Arturo Toscanini who take 13 minutes in the first movement while Furtwangler took 18. Between the two approaches, I suppose I prefer Furtwangler’s, but both need a musician of amazing gifts to make such unmusical-seeming decisions into something musical. For me, Toscanini’s finest performance was just recently released. The Orchestra of Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires in 1941. The sound is even worse than in Furtwangler’s ’42 performance, but whereas Furtwangler is titanic and transcendent, Toscanini taps into something primal and animalistic. It is just as intense an experience.
Otto Klemperer, thought by many (and me) a greater Beethovenian than either Toscanini or Furtwangler. One does not, however, generally find Klemperer at his greatest strength in the 9th. The sheer sprawl of it is not necessarily best suited for this maestro who laid everything out with incontrovertible logic. In the famous 'late Klemperer' phase, the best performance is the 1957 live recording on the Testament label with the Philharmonia Orchestra, whose urgency runs rings around his studio effort with the same forces (caught in the same week I believe). . 
There are three performances from the ‘old school’ that are far more to my taste and fuse the driven fire of Toscanini and the lofty spirit of Furtwangler. One is Willem Mengelberg’s with the Concertgebouw in 1940. Mengelberg is a terribly underrated Beethoven conductor (and perhaps is generally), but if you can take his tempo fluctuations (which aren’t really more crazy than a number of other conductors), he is has the Beethovenian fire in a manner neither Toscanini or Furtwangler have. Mengelberg’s Concertgebouw was, to my thinking, the greatest orchestra of its time, an orchestra made of crackling fire.
Another is Bruno Walter’s 1947 performance with the London Philharmonic. Walter made at least three live performances of the 9th caught on radio in his later years, all of which are excellent. The only performance which is anything less than great is his final studio performance with the Columbia Symphony, which is the only one people remember. Walter in his eighties was a very different conductor than he was before. Before his heart attack in 1956 he was downright fiery, and therefore perhaps the best approximation we have of what his teacher, Gustav Mahler, sounded like as a conductor.
The third is by the regrettably forgotten Hermann Abendroth, who made his mature career under two totalitarian regimes. He was, in many ways, a ‘faster Furtwangler’ who always tied his tempo to the piece’s harmonic tensions, but did not have Furtwangler’s broad metaphysical outlook that made Furtwangler try to find the loftiness in every score. Abendroth was content to settle for overwhelming drama. Abendroth also left many superb Ninths, but for me, the best of all is his 1951 performance with the Czech Philharmonic. Be warned though, the last movement is in Czech.
George Szell is another conductor whose best performance is a live one rather than his more famous studio recording. His performance with the Philharmonia in 1968 is both a touch slower than the studio version and downright explosive, the recapitulation of the first movement and the opening of the last movement have to be heard to be believed. 
Among Herbert von Karajan's, many, many studio recordings, he is, in my opinion, best caught in his final digital cycle, which most people take to be his worst effort but I think is his best. Early in his career, Karajan would often swamp Beethoven’s winds and brass and timpani in a wash of string sound, which to me is antithetical to the rough Beethovenian spirit. Karajan’s tempos are fundamentally the same from performance to performance give or take a few BPM, but the winds and brass and timpani keep creeping further forward until in the final version they dominate the strings at times, just as they should. On the other hand, in 1958, Herbert von Karajan faced the New York Philharmonic for the only ever time in a series of Beethoven concerts. The result is urgent to a degree that surpasses any effort in the studio. This is Karajan drained of his mannerisms, faced with an orchestra whose brash sound has often resembles a blunt tool, Karajan reinstates the precision the 50's Philharmonic was not known for having, and has little time left over-legato his passages. Generally speaking, Karajan live is a completely different, and far greater, conductor than when left to his worst impulses in the studio. The result is an urgency never again seen from the Austrian master in any of his five recordings. 
Leonard Bernstein is best caught in his two Vienna Philharmonic performances from 1970 (only video) and 1979 (audio and video). Best of all is the live performance from 1979 Salzburg. His 60’s New York Beethoven is hardly bad, but the typically extreme, forward, unbalanced, treble heavy Columbia sound does nobody any favors. The famous Ode to Freedom concert is incredibly slow and Bernstein does not give it the explosive power of a Furtwangler or Barenboim to make such slow tempi work.
Better than either Karajan or Bernstein is Gunter Wand’s 1987 performance with the NDR Symphony. Of the Beethovenians of the ‘German school’, Wand is the greatest - along with Szell and Karajan the most consistently great Beethovenian there is IMHO. The sound he cultivates is a little too smooth to be ideal, but Wand projects a precise balance of momentum and warmth better than any conductor ever has.
Both Kubelik and Celibidache gave greater 9ths earlier in their career than later. Kubelik’s 1959 performance on Danish Radio is far better, in my humble opinion, than his later performances. As is Celibidache’s 1958 performance on Italian radio. None of their later performances have the weight of sound to justify the broadness of their tempi.
Five broader performances that do justify broad tempi with enormous weight of sound are Simon Rattle’s Vienna Philharmonic performance from his Beethoven cycle, Herbert Kegel’s studio effort from his Beethoven cycle with the Dresden Philharmonic, Herbert Blomstedt’s live 1985 performance with the Staatskapelle Dresden (not the studio version, which I still haven’t heard), and especially Klaus Tennstedt’s live 1987 and 1991 performances with the London Philharmonic and Daniel Barenboim’s 2000 performance with the Staatskapelle Berlin. All five are more than worthy of their precedents set by Furtwangler and Klemperer, and in many ways exceed their forerunners in excitement, playing, and pure personality.
No less exciting but somewhat more fleet and middle ground are Kurt Masur’s second recording of it from Leipzig, a number of performances with various orchestras by the always underrated conductor and Beethovenian Carl Schuricht, Erich Leinsdorf conducting the Boston Symphony, Felix Weingartner’s antique performance with the Vienna Philharmonic, George Szell’s studio performance with the Cleveland Orchestra. But best of all are Michael Gielen’s performance with the Southwest German Radio Symphony, Bernard Haitink’s with the London Symphony, and Charles Munch with the Boston Symphony. Once upon a time, performances like these would be thought uncommonly fleet. But compared to the authentic performance crowd, this is nothing. None of them try to approximate Beethoven’s zany metronome markings, but they all have the excitement of daring virtuosity at tempos that are anything but comfortable at which to play. In place of a slightly fundamentalist authenticity, they have pure drama. To me, this is the approach that most reliably yields dividends. Neither striving for maximum virtuosity with 13 minute openings or slow movements, nor maximum spirituality with 20 minute versions of the same movements. But capturing plenty of both at a middle ground. This is the middle ground of Mengelberg, earlier Walter, Abendroth, Karajan in America, late Szell, Wand, Munch, Gielen, and late Haitink that allows for no stylistic question to get in the way of the performance’s urgency and communication. So I suppose there you have it, a top 8 versions of the 9th, though be careful that you don’t go for a duller version of the same conductor than the ones listed, and I'm frankly too lazy to guide you through all the various sound incarnations.
Then, of course, you have the performances that try to capture varying types of authenticity. Like many broader tempoed versions I shant name, this strikes me as equally unwise. There is no ability to phrase, there is no room for character or individuality, just a mechanized, streamlined vision of Beethoven that conforms to the confines of a straightjacket. John Eliot Gardiner is at least more exciting than most of the others, and Riccardo Chailly managed to keep refining his conception through New Year’s performance after New Year’s performance in Leipzig, and his 2013 performance is at least much more exciting than his studio recording of 2011. But none wring the sheer savage passion one gets from Toscanini at his finest.
It’s difficult to escape the idea that Beethoven’s 9th used to mean more in an age that survived the worst of humanity’s degradations. In our more ironic, and ironically more despairing age, the passion we once had for Beethoven seems to go into more pessimistic composers like Mahler and Shostakovich. Both Mahler and Shostakovich are amazing, but neither is possible without Beethoven, and unlike Mahler and Shostakovich, Beethoven performance today seems to be more a question of style than substance, his message seems secondary to any stylistic question: with musical extremists like Norrington and Gardiner on one side of the argument, and other musical extremists like Barenboim and Thielemann on the other. Such extreme approaches as theirs have unforgettable insights, but they do not show you every facet of this work with so many sides.
Yet in a work so emotionally complex and complete, it’s impossible to confine to just one performance. If any of these approaches seem to appeal to you more than others, I’d recommend without hesitation the performances I’ve listed. Beethoven 9 has been astonishingly lucky on record as few works have, there are any number of good performances and even an inordinate number of great ones. It’s a testament to the power this work has over us all. More perhaps than any other work, it’s the central work in our canon - equivalent to the Sistine Chapel or Hamlet or the Iliad or War and Peace or Citizen Kane. It’s the summit, the zenith, of musical achievement, and no matter how often you listen, you never stop finding new insights.



Mengelberg/Concertgebouw Orchestra/1940
Walter/London Philharmonic/1947
Abendroth/Czech Philharmonic/1951
Karajan/New York Philharmonic/1958
Munch/Boston Symphony/1959
Szell/Philharmonia Orchestra/1968
Wand/NDR Symphony/1987
Haitink/London Symphony/2006
Gielen/SWR Symphony/2012

Weingartner/Vienna Philharmonic/1935
Toscanini/Orchestra Teatro Colon/1941
Furtwangler/Berlin Philharmonic/1942
Abendroth/Leipzig Radio Symphony/1951
Walter/Vienna Philharmonic/1955
Schuricht/Paris Conservatoire Orchestra/1958
Szell/Cleveland Orchestra/1962
Karajan/Berlin Philharmonic/1963
Leinsdorf/Boston Symphony/1969
Bernstein/Vienna Philharmonic (Salzburg)/1979
Masur/Leipzig Gewandhaus/1981
Karajan/Berlin Philharmonic/1984
Tennstedt/London Philharmonic/1987
Tennstedt/London Philharmonic/1991
Barenboim/Staatskapelle Berlin/2000

Toscanini/BBC Symphony/1937
Mengelberg/Concertgebouw Orchestra/1938
Toscanini/NBC Symphony/1938
Furtwangler/Berlin Philharmonic/1943
Walter/New York Philharmonic/1949-1953
Abendroth/Berlin Radio Symphony/1950
Abendroth/USSR Symphony/1951
Furtwangler/Bayreuth Festival Orchestra/1951
Furtwangler/Vienna Philharmonic/1953
Schuricht/Orchestre Nationale de France/1954
Klemperer/Phiharmonia Orchestra (live)/1957
Celibidache/RAI Symphony Torino/1958
Kubelik/Danish Radio Symphony/1962
Bernstein/Vienna Philharmonic/1970
Karajan/Berlin Phiharmonic/1977
Bernstein/Vienna Philharmonic (Vienna)/1979
Blomstedt/Staatskapelle Dresden/1985
Kegel/Dresden Philharmonic/1987
Gardiner/Orchestre Revolutionaire et Romantique/1993
Rattle/Vienna Philharmonic/2003
Chailly/Leipzig Gewandhaus/2013

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