I own three recordings of Beethoven's ninth symphony: Furtwangler's legendary recording with the Choir and Orchestra of the Bayreuth Festival (ASIN: B00000GCA7), Karajan's recording from his second Beethoven Symphony cycle (ASIN: B000001GBQ), and Barenboim's recording on Erato (ASIN: B000005EBQ). I recommend all three very highly. They each represent a different interpretive style. Here is my fumbling attempt to state the positives and negatives of each...
Furtwangler's ninth is (as might be expected) a fiery, passionate affair. The choir is particularly impressive. Edelmann and Schwarzkopf are probably the best singers on any of these discs (sorry Walter Berry fans...he takes a close second here). The lone drawback of this recording is the mono sound. Yet, the EMI transfers are wonderful and it is mighty good for mono.
Karajan takes an almost opposite approach to the piece from Furtwangler's. Where Wilhelm gets fiery (sometimes brash), Herbert is more stately (a little Toscanini-ish...but that's another review). Karajan attempts to let the score speak for itself. His quartet and choir work wonderfully together. The Berlin Philharmonic is at the height of its Karajan era power in this recording. Again the main drawback is sound quality. There is a nasty hiss at the beginning of the CD and it is heard palpably throughout. Also, this is just my taste...but I feel Karajan lacks a little too much of Furtwangler's fire.
My first choice out of these three would be Barenboim's recording with the Staatskapelle Berlin. His singers and chorus are probably my least favorite of the three--yet they hold their own. The real show here is Barenboim's expansive, but still dynamic reading.
He rejects the passionate individuality of Furtwangler and the somewhat detached precision of Karajan. Instead, Barenboim allows the music to generate its own force. He allows things to take shape in their own time without ever losing an overall grasp of the piece.
The one possible problem here is the second movement. It threatens to degenerate into a meandering mist. Yet it only threatens. The powerhouse finale absolves this recording of any drawbacks. If it does not move you, I doubt anything will.
The sound is wonderfully balanced--not hazy (as the Karajan can be in parts) and not too "present" (as many, many digital versions are).
Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is one of the great monuments of Western civilization. I give all three of the recordings listed here a high recommendation. If you only can get one, I recommend the Barenboim.