Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 9 in D minor Choral, Op. 125 [73:02]
Tilla Briem (soprano); Elisabeth Höngen (alto); Peter Anders (tenor); Rudolph Watzke (bass); Bruno Kittel Choir
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Wilhelm Furtwängler
rec. live, 22-24 March 1942, Alte Philharmonie, Berlin, Germany

Wilhelm Furtwängler’s legendary 1942 Berlin performance of Beethoven Choral Symphony has been available on several labels. I have the performance on the Archipel Desert Island Collection ARPCD 0002 and on the Société Wilhelm Furtwängler SWF 891R.

Each restoration engineer will have wanted to improve the sound quality of previous attempts. On this Pristine Audio release Andrew Rose in September and October 2010 carried out the XR re-mastering. Yes, there is still some occasional fuzziness; however, I was particularly impressed by the reduction in the background hiss. A number of the worst coughing episodes have been removed and much of the fierceness arising from peak distortion has been effectively smoothed away. The recording is vastly improved but it’s still not perfect. I make the appeal to try and listen through the sound quality because this is a truly great performance of real historic significance.

This 1942 Berlin performance has gained legendary status and is said to be an example of Furtwängler’s rebellious response to the stresses of working with the Berlin Philharmonic as cultural propagandists for Hitler’s Third Reich. Whether this is a true reflection of the situation or not this is certainly a heartfelt account of astonishing tension from Furtwängler’s tortured soul.

In the opening movement I was struck by the ferocity of the propulsive climaxes and the sense of torment and anger. The Scherzo is so powerful and brisk. That overt sense of incredible anguish unleashed in the fortissimos is practically demonic. Dark foreboding flows from the depths through the double-basses and cellos. It would be implausible that Furtwängler is doing anything other than venting his angst through this troubling music. An eerie sense of calm pervades the slow movement. The beautiful playing of the woodwind choir and the sonorous strings add to the poetic atmosphere. In the crowning finale with its famous choral setting of Schiller’s Ode to Joy the fury returns marked by the vehemence of the drums. Darkling intimations from the double-basses and cellos send a shiver down the spine. The entrance of the baritone soloist and Choir comes as a welcome relief. I found the singing ardently incisive throughout. At the close of the score the exultation is unalloyed.

For those who want a recording of Furtwängler’s famous 1942 account this is the best I have heard.

Michael Cookson

For those who want a recording of Furtwängler’s famous 1942 account this is the best I have heard.