North German Radio Symphony Orchestra, cond Günter Wand RCA 74321 68005, £5·99
Beethoven: Symphony No 9 Unprecedented in its scale and expressive reach, “the Ninth” (the number is all you need) became a cultural icon within a decade of its première in Vienna in 1824. No other symphony has had so many subtexts foisted upon it. The Romantics heard it as autobiography, from the first movement’s grapplings with “destiny” to the euphoria of the choral finale. For Wagner, the Ninth was at once a Creation myth and a revelation that “every soul was made for joy”. Then the symphony was hijacked for political and social ends. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the symphony’s finale was the inevitable choice to celebrate Freiheit – freedom.
Picking a single Ninth from more than 100 available recordings is a bewildering, even absurd, exercise. If you already have a favourite, it will almost certainly go unmentioned here, and I sympathise. Essentially, it depends on taste. For an interpretation in the Wagnerian tradition, the must-have recording is Wilhelm Furtwängler with the 1951 Bayreuth Festival Orchestra: a performance of inspired intuition, borne along on a vast, cosmic current (EMI 566901-2).
Those who prefer a more classically rigorous, Toscanini-influenced view should hear Böhm and the VPO (DG 437 368-2), and the fiercely dramatic Karajan, 1976 vintage (DG 415 832-2). Among period practitioners, Roger Norrington is musically radical, often provocatively swift, stressing the symphony’s roots in Haydn and Mozart (Virgin VM5 61378-2).
Yet for a performance compounded of fire and earth, urgent yet songful, and mingling keenly observed detail with a powerful grasp of Beethoven’s mighty tonal architecture, Günter Wand’s 1986 version, superbly played, sung and recorded, must take the palm. The first two movements have a thrilling, inevitable sweep, the slow movement is tenderly pliable rather than marmoreal, and the finale’s diverse sections hold together magnificently, with a truly Dionysian blaze in the closing pages.