Wilhelm Furtwängler

Beethoven IX - Lucerne, 1954

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Long hailed as one of the all-time greatest performances of Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in D minor, "Choral," Wilhelm Furtwängler's August 22, 1954, recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra is suffused with intense emotion, not least because this valedictory event preceded the conductor's death by a little over three months, and the performers were all acutely aware of his failing health. Even so, there is great strength and energy in the playing, as well as pain, longing, and tenderness, and Furtwängler obviously displayed sufficient stamina and lucidity to inspire his musicians to give their all. The performance was recorded live at the Lucerne Festival, so naturally there are some imprecise attacks, a few roughly played passages, and plenty of rubato that is decidedly old-fashioned and excessive by modern standards. Furthermore, there are lots of audience noises, which are most intrusive during the softest passages, so this is far from a perfect-sounding Ninth. All the same, this is a remarkably translucent rendition for an ADD recording, with great clarity in the woodwinds, a penetrating edge in the brass, and reasonably focused playing in the strings, despite a generally lush tone. The cohesive quartet of soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, contralto Elsa Cavelti, tenor Ernst Haefliger, and bass Otto Edelmann works quite well, and the Festival choir is one of the better sounding choral groups in mid-twentieth century recordings of the Ninth, so the Finale is a resounding success, though mostly because of Furtwängler's ecstatic interpretation and the orchestra's wide range of expressive power, from the sotto voce of the first appearance of the famous "Ode to Joy" theme to the towering conclusion. Taken altogether, this is one of Furtwängler's finest recordings ever, and it clearly deserves a permanent place in the catalog, one of the key reasons why it is regularly reissued.

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