I first heard this magnificent Beethoven 9th in the early 1970's on a poor Seraphim LP transfer, never dreaming it could sound as good as it does here. That first hearing turned my entire view of great orchestral interpretation upside down. Previously, I had felt that Toscanini's was the finest interpretation. But by the time I reached the first mvt. coda of this live 9th from Bayreuth, my perceptions of musical eloquence had been changed forever. I simply had no idea of what power, breadth, majesty, grandeur and originality this music contained until I heard Furtwangler.
This is one of about 10 Beethoven 9th recordings by Furtwangler, all of them "live." They are all fascinating. There is a general consensus that Furtwangler's three finest readings are this one, the 1942 BPO from Berlin, and the 1954 Philharmonia from Lucerne. Here is a summary:
1. This Furtwangler (1951) with the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra & Chorus (Schwarzkopf, Hongen, Hopf, & Edelmann). It is less extreme than the 1942 and has more energy and passion than the 1954. Schwarzkopf is superb, Edelmann is excellent. The other Furtwangler 9ths listed here are better played (no wavering horn player in the Adagio), but this one has a special sense of occasion that makes it unique. The CD transfer here is identical to the one in the complete Beethoven set on EMI. So if you already have that one, there is no need to buy this one.
2. Furtwangler/BPO 1942, Bruno Kittel Choir, with Tilla Briem, Elisabeth Hongen, Peter Anders, and Rudolph Watzke (Music & Arts CD 4049). This is the most impassioned and dramatic of ALL 9ths. The BPO plays as if possessed, and the singers (except for Briem's shaky high notes) are superb. This is a performance of huge extremes: I feel the 1951 Bayreuth is perhaps the better balance of mind and heart. Furtwangler only conducted the 9th on special occasions. Likewise, this intensely anguished reading should only be heard every once in a while.
3. Furtwangler/Philharmonia 1954, Lucerne Festival Chorus, with Schwarzkopf, Elsa Cavelti, Ernst Haefliger, and Edelmann (best transfer is on Tahra 1054/7). Just 3 months before his death, Furtwangler is slower and more meditative. Wonderfully weighty and profound, this 9th lacks some of the fire and energy of the 1951 Bayreuth. This was the conductor's own favorite of all his live 9ths - and there are times when I feel it is his greatest reading.
Frankly, I wouldn't want to be without any of them. While there are other interpretations that I also admire (Abendroth, Weingartner, Schuricht, and Konwitschny), this Furtwangler threesome represents my favorite readings of all. There are times when I feel that 1942 Berlin is ultimate, but then I hear this Bayreuth and the Lucerne and I waver. Each of these has special insights and profoundly communicative playing. You really owe it to yourself to hear them - they are among the richest musical experiences you will ever encounter.