Worth a listen: two reissues of Beethoven's Ninth

April 08, 1999|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Before the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra joins the U.S. Naval Academy Chorus and Hood College Choir to perform Beethoven's Ninth Symphony this weekend, you might wonder just what are the top Ninths these days?

Two of the best versions of Beethoven's "Choral" Symphony are old performances dressed in new packages, and, in one case, in refurbished sound as well. I'm speaking of Herbert von Karajan's 1962 Ninth, which has reappeared on Deutsche Grammophon's Originals label.

Karajan is weighty and dramatic to a fault, and the slow movement contains many moments of sumptuous beauty. The "Ode to Joy" may be a little light on charm, but majesty and a sense of occasion are everywhere. The four soloists are superb.

Polygram's new Penguin Classics budget series has released the first of Sir Georg Solti's two Ninths, and it, too, is wonderful. Solti is full of characteristic energy, and the adagio is especially beautiful -- mystically intense and even.

Karajan has better soloists, but Solti squeezes more joy out of the concluding Ode.

For spectacular playing and singing caught in up-to-date sound, try Christoph von Dohnanyi and the Cleveland Orchestra on Telarc. Dohnanyi is down a couple of notches from Solti and Karajan on the intensity scale, but for a kinder, gentler Ninth that still retains plenty of excitement, you won't go wrong here.

Should you find yourself considering one of the period performance Ninths (Roger Norrington, Christopher Hogwood, or one of those guys), take a deep breath and let the temptation pass. The gut string crowd has never come close to bringing off an effective account of Beethoven's valedictory symphony. They're all terrible.

Pub Date: 4/08/99

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