Herbert von Karajan first conducted Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in Aachen in November 1939 and made a first, highly regarded recording of it in Vienna in 1947. After he conducted the symphony in London in 1949 The Times wrote: “This was a breath-taking performance. Mr von Karajan achieved his effect by concentrating, not on its dramatic or philosophical elements, but on its musical power and lyric beauty.” Later, during his Berlin years, Karajan’s reading would become leaner, quicker and more explicitly dramatic.
The present performance of the Ninth is based on concerts given in the Berlin Philharmonie on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day 1968. The film, which marked Karajan’s debut as a film director, was not released during his lifetime, possibly because of a perceived mismatch between the choral parts of the finale, which were filmed in the Philharmonie, and the preceding parts of the symphony which were recorded in a television studio – with a fake audience – using the original sound recording. Notwithstanding these discrepancies, Karajan’s directorial debut impresses with its unusual editing and lighting techniques learned from earlier collaborations with film-makers Henri-Georges Clouzot and Hugo Niebeling.
A hypnotic presence on the rostrum, Karajan conducted concerts – though not operas or choral works – with closed eyes. In this 1968 Berlin Beethoven Ninth, it is in the choral finale that we see the “complete” Karajan: the master conductor, his eyes very much open in the vocal sections, symbiotically at one with soloists, choir and orchestra. Here, too, we glimpse the humanity of the man behind the mask, unflinchingly committed to the music and the musicians it was his privilege to serve.