With this magnificently fresh but powerful Ninth Symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven (and maybe with this whole cycle in general, but I don't know, because up till now I have heard only this recording), maestro Bernard Haitink has delivered what could maybe be called the 'ultimate' in this work, to stand aside any of the best.
This recording surely is a culmination and a crowning achievement of, firstly, a more than 50 year conducting career; secondly, a vision of a conductor who has been 'working with Beethoven' for more than 30 years (when Bernard Haitink recorded his first Beethoven cycle); and thirdly, the growing insights of period instrument practice slowly melting with 'traditional' performing tradition, cumulating into what could only be called 'the best of both worlds'. But the 'live' element must probably be taken into account here as well, as it is known that, generally, a 'live' Bernard Haitink is a 'better' one, coaxing the maestro to give his utmost. The man Bernard Haitink, it is known, really lives with and for his music, truly coming alive before the orchestra with attentive present audience to witness the man and the maestro at recreating the fruit of genius that is the music of Ludwig van Beethoven (Gustav Mahler, Anton Bruckner, ...).
The orchestral playing is - as is so often the case with Bernard Haitink - absolutely clear, honest, with noble sentiment, but without any excess, which is good. There is no unnecessary lingering or dawdling at any time in this recording, always going purposely forward toward our goal. Above this, like a Dutch commentator said, we have 'warm strings, layering of different orchestral voices and transparent woodwinds and brass.' Combine this with the above said achievements of a long and impressive conducting career and the growing insights and mergings of performance practices, and you get maybe the best Beethoven imaginable.
This Beethoven 9 sounds fresh and athletic, completely alive and brimming with youthful energy (Haitink is 77!): the 'muscle tone' directly 'visible' underneath the tight and smooth 'skin' of the wonderfully attentive and fresh playing of the London Symphony Orchestra, as it were. To my ears, it is almost incredible what unimagined orchestral colors, inflections and nuances maestro Haitink coaxes (if I may call it that ;-) out of the (obviously very willing) orchestra sometimes, things one has never before heard in this music in this way (a result of maestro Haitink's careful abovementioned layering of orchestral voices?), but always absolutely gorgeous. Listen, for example, to the magnificent third movement Adagio, which is taken at naturally flowing speeds, not as slow as von Karajan (1984) [15:54] or as fast as Philippe Herreweghe (1998) [12:26].
This Beethoven is so freshly inspired, 'healthy' and with so much spring in its step, that it will probably (hopefully?) last as a benchmark for a whole generation of listeners and performers. For fans of the LSO and devotees of Bernard Haitink, I think this is unmissable. I for one love this recording and as a result I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone without any reserve.