I've read about it for years; so many people saying it's the greatest ever, but I always said: "Ach, I already have too many Beethoven Ninths". Well, I finally broke down and bought it.
Some random thoughts and things that caught my ear to which I found singular to this performance/recording:
-First off, the recording is fine remastered late-'50s stereo, but cannot be mistaken for modern digital. Strings and highs might seem a bit steely, but that didn't bother me. All orchestral sections are vividly portrayed. Fortissimos are crisp and distinct, pianissimos well-distinguishable. Recording perspective puts one on the podium with what sounds like a multi-mike arrangement; i.e., typical Deutsche Grammophon. However, the winds, brass, and tympani are treated as equals to the strings, unlike later with Karajan.
-The first movement pianissimo string tremolos are barely audible beneath that marvelous opening motif, as well as later when repeated. I'm used to hearing the tremolos more pronounced and would probably prefer it that way.
-The first movement builds and ebbs with great aplomb and the crescendos culminate with tympani blazing in the same fashion as Furtwängler/'42, though not quite as overwhelming as to drown the proceedings and rock the foundations, but you definitely know the tympani are there!
-The scherzo second movement offers a tempo which I'd describe as conventional, certainly slower that Karajan and perhaps faster than Böhm/'72. No problems there.
-I had never heard the cellos as pronounced in the second movement as on this recording. Loved it!
-The adagio third movement is beautifully and slowly rendered; the notes say 18:00. It's not nearly as expansive as Furtwängler/'42's 20:00, but certainly just as rapturous with instrumental details aplenty! Böhm/'72 took it faster, but not as memorably or affectedly. In Fricsay's third movement, the soft pizzicato strings are distinct and the sudden bursts of brass cut right to the soul. This movement is often problematic for me, but not here. Beautiful!
-The dissonant beginning of the fourth movement sounds kind of wimpy, as if a chunk of the orchestration was excised. In fact, it's probably as wimpy as I ever remember hearing it in a non-HIP recording. No big deal, however.
-The beginning of the "O freude, nicht diese Töne" is very powerful. The soloists are definitely highlighted, up-front, and "in your face" -- they are the stars of this show! The chorus is appropriately recessed, but recorded with powerful presence. It seems as if the chorus moved slightly forward in the sound picture as the movement progressed, then receded slightly again behind the soloists. No complaints here; it was so subtle that it might be a product of Fricsay's balancing from the podium and not engineering derring-do. The orchestra did seem to vie with the chorus for prominence, but so what, right?
-The soloists are so distinct that one can hear many fine individual flourishes in their ensemble singing -- loved it!
-The tempo of the choral movement shifts from foursquare forward, to almost a dead stop, then ignites again, driving to a coda that's brought home powerfully and convincingly. Everything is beautifully under control and not hell-bent-for-leather, so to speak.
My favorites over the years have been:
Schmidt-Isserstedt/Vienna Phil./London (Outstanding soloists!)
Böhm ('72)/Vienna Phil./DG (A magnificent, high calorie performance and grand sense of occasion!)
Karajan ('77)/Berlin Phil./DG (Better recording than his '63, but near equally great performance!)
Leibowitz/Royal Phil./Chesky (They put the "JOY" into Ode To Joy!)
Sure, I can add Fricsay to the list. I was never "overly" enamored with Szell, Toscanini, Wand, Muti, Klemperer, Bernstein, Dohnányi, Norrington, Goodman, and a few others, though they're all seemingly well-regarded by some and certainly have their fine points. I've yet to hear Reiner's or Solti's recordings, both with the Chicago Symphony and both with their fervent fans. Nor have I heard the renown Gardiner, Abbado, and Barenboim. I don't have to hear the Zinman/Tonhalle, not after hearing samples.
I've also yet to hear Furtwängler's famous '51 live performance at the post-war re-opening of the Bayreuth Festival which some people simply swear by. I tend to take event-driven hyberbole with a grain of salt, especially after hearing Bernstein's "Fall of the Wall" recording. Furtwängler's equally famous and harrowing '42 wartime recording simply must be placed in a special category on account of its comparatively wretched sound quality, if for no other reason than for the benefit of novice listeners. However, I would also join those who suggest it's a performance that thoroughly demands to be heard.
The Fricsay is certainly a great recorded performance of the Ninth. The greatest ever? Hell, I don't know! I would definitely say it's worth the purchase. Whether it's worth the import price, however, is up to the individual. I purchased mine used for about $10 plus S&H.
I should probably also mention that the CD opens with one of the most expansive performances of the Egmont Overture I've ever heard.