Klaus Tennstedt's reputation has soared since his death from cancer in 1998 at the premature age of seventy-one. Like Furtwangler, he was at his best in concert, and it can be justifiably said that if you know Tennstedt only from his studio recordings, you barely know him. There are two great Beethoven Ninths from him, both posthumous releases of concerts with the London Phil., the orchestra he led and which plays for him as if inspired. The earlier account, released by BBC Legends, dates from Sept. 1985, seven years before this one (Oct. 1992); both occurred in Royal Festival Hall and are captured in listenable if not perfect stereo (even studio recordings have difficulty in the finale because of the tricky balances between orchestra, chorus, and solo quartet). The lead reviewer complains loudly about the sonics here, but I hear no great flaws; I will concede that the volume must be turned up to overcome the somewhat distant miking and murky midrange. All but the most finicky listeners should be able to adjust easily.
Both of Tennstedt's live readings (seconded by less well recorded pirate releases) are given on a scale similar to Furtwangler's, with broad, passionate expression that justifies the work's huge ambitions. This is world-shaking music delivered in that spirit. at the moment such a "romantic" approach is disparaged by period enthusiasts, and it must be conceded that few present-day conductors would dare to launch a Ninth this grandly; they'd be afraid of critical blowback against them. However, for anyone who cherishes noble readings, not just from Furtwangler, but from Karajan, Fricsay, Klmeperer, and Stokowski, this one under Tennstedt is, if anything, more propulsive, dramatic, and deeply felt. A touchstone for prospective buyers is the Scherzo, which too often devolves into mechanical repetition; Tennstedt makes every appearance of the main theme sound fresh and alive.
The first movement has already established the conductor's intentions, but I always await the Adagio, perhaps the greatest that Beethoven ever wrote and a monument of the romantic movement, making Bruckner and Mahler's sublime, far-reaching slow movements possible. At 18 min. Teenstedt's pacing is a minute slower than it was in 1985, a true Adagio whose eloquence is exceeded, in my experience, only by Furtwangler's famous account from Lucerne in 1954, which is a full minute and a half slower. The metronome is a bad critic, they say, so my response isn't to the pacing but to Tennstedt's heartfelt interpretation, which aims -- as Furtwangler did -- at the final moments when the music soars into the transcendent. Modern critics turn up their nose at such descriptions, but this conductor was firmly established in the tradition that, for better or worse, turned Beethoven into a demigod. I say for the better, since there's a deeply moving idealism implicit in Beethoven's vision of music, and Tennstedt is right to realize such idealism.
If sonic complaints are justified, they would arise in the finale. It takes some fiddling to get the full impact of the orchestral discord that begins the movement and the closer miking of Rene Pape's entry (the now eminent bass-baritone was 28 at the time). Happily, the chorus isn't relegated to outer space. It is caught fairly realistically, and we can understand their diction here and there, if not at the loudest dynamics. In the solo quartet Pape is magnificent, and the women are good, even if Lucia Popp is over-parted (she was a favorite of Tennstedt's, apparently). Anthony Rolfe-Johnson, a lyric tenor, copes with is murderous solo well, without excessive shouting; the climactic high note is swallowed up by the chorus. Overall, the finale is conducted by a master, but Tennstedt's energies may have waned enough, for health reasons, that a listener may prefer the greater tension and dramatic coherence of the 1985 Ninth on BBC Legends -- it is two minutes faster.
I hate to make this an either/or choice, though. This is rare Beethoven conducting, and anyone captivated by one of Tennstedt's readings can't help but be tempted to hear the other, the same as with Klemperer and Furtwangler. As much as I may lament the end of their noble tradition, we are fortunate to have such a wealth of older recordings to be inspired by.