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Why Karajan's 1963 Beethoven 9th Is My Definitive 9th Recording: The First Movement

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I'll jump right into what I consider the deal-breaker for Beethoven's Ninth symphony: The first movement, "Allegro Ma Non Troppo, Un Poco Maestoso". For others, it's the Finale and I can certainly understand that. However, for myself, the first movement sets the tone of the entire symphony. Not to mention that it's such an amazing movement that others have called it a veritable symphony in and unto itself. It's extremely difficult to perfectly capture the weight, depth and emotion that the first movement has to offer. From the deeply enigmatic opening notes that explode into one of the most majestically terrifying openings in all of music. Yet, despite that intensely powerful opening, the movement descends into a more mysterious mood, it's as if it's finding its way, occasionally finding itself when the majestic opening theme is reintroduced again a couple times through false recapitulations until it all comes to a head in the last couple minutes in a well-deserved climax that it has been fighting to obtain throughout the entire course of the movement.

I believe that forward movement is key to achieving this, and that is something that is just lacking in the slower 9th's out there. Yes, with these slow-tempo interpretations, you definitely feel the power, there is no question about that, but it is at the expense of the forward movement which is so intrinsic to this movement (and entire symphony in my opinion). It is the glue that holds together its mystery and raw power.

On to the more modern interpretations that are in the "Historically Informed Performances" category, like Zinman, Gardiner, Chailly, Vanska (and Abbado to a lesser extent in his 2000 cycle with the Berlin Philharmonic). Before continuing, I don't want to be misunderstood, I'd like to make clear that I'm solely referring to Beethoven's 9th. I adore Zinman's "Eroica" symphony, and in general I really enjoy the HIP performances (I own recordings from the above-mentioned conductors). However, Beethoven's 9th is a different animal, the fast tempos of Zinman and Chailly certainly excel in the forward movement that I was talking about, but the raw power is toned down and the mystery is almost non-present. It seems that there is a compromise one has to make, slower tempos that forgo the forward movement for more power and mystery and vice versa for the faster performances. Yet, Karajan's 1963 Ninth is at just the right tempo to keep all of these elements, it's faster than Klemperer, Bernstein, and Bohm, but not as brisk as the HIP performances, it's like Goldilock's porridge: just right. Obviously, there can be no complaining about the virtuoso playing from the 1960's Berlin Philharmonic in its prime. The raw power of the first movement is in full force, yet it never goes so fast that it sacrifices any of the mysteriousness, it slows down just enough in all the right places and the has the all-important forward movement that keeps it all together. All of the criteria that the first movement has to meet is met beautifully in Karajan's performance.

- Other Thoughts on Karajan's 1963 Ninth Symphony -

- Please note that the Wiener Singverein Chorus does take a back seat to the orchestra. Recording a balanced Finale is known for being a formidable task, and it's understandable that either the orchestra or the singers will be somewhat muffled comparatively.

- The Scherzo does not have both repeats, this is a bit disappointing to me since I very much enjoy the Scherzo and I would have welcomed the other repeat.

- Also concerning the Scherzo, the timpani doesn't have the power that I would have liked it to have, it sounds a bit dull and muffled. Of course, this isn't a fault to the performance, just the sound quality and placement of the mic. I would have liked to hear the timpani more prominently like in Szell or Fricsay's 9th.

- For the most part, the only issues I have with Karajan's 9th are not due to the performance, they're only technical issues (like the slightly muffled chorus in the 4th movement and the under-miked timpani in the 2nd movement)

Updated Dec-07-2014 at 09:48 by DiesIraeCX

Classical Music , Composers , Conductors