The Christmas holidays are a time for rituals: mine are mostly musical and prescribe that I listen really deeply and carefully to a set number of pieces, Bach's Christmas Oratorio, for example, and the Christmas History of Heinrich Schütz, which I directed personally a dozen times around town back in the 70's, when neighborhood arts funding helped make such concerts possible.
So when New Year's arrives, I listen to Beethoven's Ninth, a custom I acquired during student days in Germany. This year I heard two recordings: the von Karajan release from 1963, contrasted with the more recent version by Harnoncourt and the Vienna Phil.
The Ninth is the one symphony that I always have time for. (The rest are pretty much dead to me now due to overexposure -- excepting the Seventh: I still react viscerally to those suspensions in the second movement.) People complain about the length of the first three movements in the Ninth, but you have to see it as a long and carefully constructed journey which has to be undertaken to get to the fireworks display in the fourth.
And you absolutely have to understand the ideological significance of the work, which in modern terms would be better named an Ode to Social Justice. (In an age when autocracies ruled Europe and human slavery was still an issue, you had to dumb down the language to evade the censor, but everyone knew what was meant.)
The Harnoncourt recording is a delight. The general effect is a lot softer and more glowing, due to the dictates of historical practice techniques -- there are no hard edges here, and the brilliance of modern orchestral sound is certainly missing. But the plasticity of the sound is impressive; Harnoncourt's phrasings are reasonable, nothing unexpected, exaggerated or radically altered. Only the choral practice seemed occasionally a bit featureless, I at least would have wanted to shape some of the lines better/differently. The quartet was unusually well-heeled indeed --usually one or another of the singers lunges out louder than the rest from time to time, but Harnoncourt manages to hold the lid down perfectly.
Returning to the von Karajan recording of 1963 was like meeting an old friend. One of the first stereophonic recordings of the Ninth, I remember vividly what a blockbuster it was when first released. The Berlin Phil played with such precision that it was almost mind-blowing to hear. (Not that they didn't do so previously, it was that just now you could actually hear it.) For its day the sound quality was a revelation -- just compare it with any previous recording from the 1950's.
The performance featured the wonderful soprano Gundula Janowitz, who was however at times practically devoured by the bass and tenor soloists. The furious tempo with which von Karajan directed the final measures created a huge rumpus at the time. Today probably no one would notice, but I'm sure there are listeners alive today who still haven't forgiven him.