This is the GOLD STANDARD of 9th recordings in western culture. It’s the one Kubrick used, which then ensured you heard it every time you heard the 9th in film. It’s also from probably the best conductor of the 20th century (just behind Furtwangler). Fricsay rules. -Ian!
I cannot but wholeheartedly share my colleagues’ enthusiasm for this recording. I grew up with it (and, in fact still own the original 2-LP red album shown in this CD’s cover, numbered by DGG -yes, back then they had an extra “D” in their name- as 138002/3 SLPM, one of their very first essays in the then novel stereophonic technology) and it still remains very close to me. Besides the 9th Symphony and the Egmont Overture presented in this reissue, the original release included an excellent rendition of the Leonora Overture No. 3, left out now (I suppose) so that a second CD would not be needed. The CD’s higher transfer volume helps in bringing the sound closer to the listener (DGG apparently having decided to play it safe when their engineers cut the LPs’ masters in 1958) and conferring to it an immediacy and transparency new to me whilst preserving its beautiful tone.
There’s not much I can add to what has been written by others in this site, apart perhaps that by 1957 the Berlin Philharmonic still was very much, staff-wise, what it was under Furtwangler and it shows in this recording’s sonority. After all, the grand old man had died scarcely 3 years before these works were put into tape, Karajan had just taken over the orchestra as chief conductor and the lean, muscular and to-the-point sound that became characteristic under his long regime was still two or three years into the future. Karajan took to rotate the orchestra’s musicians fairly often, far more often actually than was customary with his predecessors and the results of the first shake-up became apparent when in 1962 the same company presented the first of Karajan’s three Beethoven symphony cycles he’d record with them, when the orchestra’s new virtuosity surprised critics the world over (Karajan had in his record a prior Beethoven symphony cycle, made for EMI during the fifties with the Philharmonia Orchestra). But what we get here, and in fine early stereophony, is the grand old sonority of the orchestra, the one that still had links to the pre-war years but which soon enough would evolve into an instrument capable of aweing its audiences under their new and starry conductor on account of its virtuosity and perfection.
But Fricsay’s interpretations differ greatly from Furtwangler’s. There is a tautness of approach, a more modern focusing on architecture that does not look back in time as much of Furtwängler’s work did (but splendidly so, I must add), embedded as it was on german romanticism, but decidedly centres in our own time. Fricsay’s approach to the Symphony’s 4th movement is as modern as the late fifties allowed to, marking a singular kind-of-extrapolated cue to today’s “historically aware” presentations, and DGG feted him with an outstanding quartet of vocal soloists. Yes, the 3rd movement is slow, perhaps harking back to the grand old man’s ways but Fricsay gave us lessons of tempo handling in the first and second movements that have nothing to do with Furtwangler’s fluctuations, an approach decidedly his, full of musicianship and with a solid grasp of the beethovenian language. So it is also in the performance of the Egmont Overture which fortunately made its way to the disc.
Yes, cancer robbed us of an immensely talented conductor who probably would have rivalled Karajan (who was but a few years his senior) during much of the second half of the 20th Century. What would have become of Fricsay’s career is anybody’s guess, as is the case with other conductors (like Cantelli, for example) whose careers were cut short by untimely death, but mind you, if you decide to buy this disc you will end up with one of the finer recordings this warhorse has had ever.