It's hard to believe that it's been twenty years since the events in Eastern Europe which inspired this unique performance of Beethoven's Ninth on Christmas Morning in 1989. In fact, the Berlin Wall has now been down for almost as long as it was up!
I've owned this recording for just as long and it still remains my favourite account of this wonderful, uplifting symphony. It is 100% live; not patched together from a few performances or polished up with studio takes afterwards, so you do get the odd background noise, applause and several stamps on the podium from Mr B. But you also get some wonderfully committed playing from an orchestra drawn largely from the Bavarian Radio Symphony but augmented by players from the LSO, NYPO, the Kirov Opera, the Orchestre de Paris and the Dresden Staatskapelle, representing the principal protagonists of World War II and the subsequent partitioning of Berlin itself. The sound is rich and grand, intensified by Bernstein's epically broad interpretation, typical of his later years. He didn't record much more after this and didn't live to see the next Christmas Morning.
Some may find it too slow, particularly when you get to the third movement Adagio, and the entire performance clocks in at 77mins, some six minutes longer than his earlier VPO account and a huge eleven minutes longer than the benchmark 1977 Karajan with the BPO. But with music making of this intensity led by a conductor of such all-embracing humanity and set against a mighty historical backdrop... I don't care!
The Finale is truly heaven-storming with fantastic solo contributions from Jan-Hendrik Rootering and Klaus Konig and some incandescent choral singing. The solo quartet in ensemble can sound a little mismatched (let's call them characterful!) and June Anderson's tendency to scoop her attack is on show pretty much throughout but, overall, their contributions are fully in keeping with the spirit of both the occasion and Bernstein's interpretation.
The sound quality is superb with the acoustic of East Berlin's Schauspielhaus sounding every bit as good as that of the Vienna Musikverein. The dynamic range has power to burn, even in the biggest climaxes, with the sound perspective putting you somewhere at the centre-front of the balcony. Orchestral detail is exceptional without ever compromising the natural balance and - joy of joys! - the large chorus is allowed to make an appropriate impact without sound engineers trying to 'turn them down' or contain them.
If you like your Beethoven 9th lean, light and / or played to the letter of the law, then you may well want to look elsewhere (the 1977 Karajan on DG, for example [ Beethoven: Symphony No.9 'Choral'
]). But if you want a big, epic, barnstorming, grandstanding, knock-your-socks-off 9th... well, you've found it! (Try Tennstedt on BBC Legends too, albeit in slightly compromised sound [ Beethoven - Symphony No 9