North Ger­man Ra­dio Sym­phony Orches­tra, cond Gün­ter Wand RCA 74321 68005, £5·99

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - Arts -

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.

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