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Sibelius: Symphonies no 4-7, etc / Karajan, Berlin PO

Release Date: 06/15/1999 
Label:  Dg The Originals Catalog #: 457748   Spars Code: ADD 
Composer:  Jean Sibelius
Conductor:  Herbert von Karajan
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 2 Hours 29 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

These classic performances have been available in Europe in several DG incarnations, but I believe this release as part of the "Originals" series is their first appearance as a set here.

Karajan falls somewhere between the powerful, highly contrasted dynamism of the Maazel/VPO version of the Fourth Symphony, with its anguished opening, and the more soulful, restrained interpretation of Davis/LSO. Karajan finds the skittish energy amid the more tranquil lines of the first movement, and his opening is closer in spirit to the bleakness of Davis than the raw power of Maazel. Karajan 's scherzo is more rhythmically active than Davis's, which tends to smooth things out, while Karajan is again more restrained than
Read more Maazel.

It is in the third movement that Karajan's interpretation qualifies for the kind of praise accorded him in the booklet notes: He does indeed produce a sound world remote from human habitation, but there is also power here, for once seemingly unrelated to personality or perfection of sound production. In the fourth movement, the celebrated glockenspiel is quite delicately handled, and the music proceeds without either mannerism or undue haste, but with plenty of animation. Interestingly, it is the Berliners who sound restrained compared to their Vienna counterparts, who are quite exuberant under Maazel.

In No. 5, Karajan's pace is expansive compared to most of the competition. Yet, the feeling of tension, as of a spring being wound up and then released, is well managed. Some conductors— Salonen, Rattle—have produced more of a sense of catharsis with the glorious brass fanfares that resolve that tension, but Karajan lets the brass roll out majestically (and quite effectively). DG provides two tracks for what is a single movement, and that is useful for noting the transition from the Largamente to the Allegro moderato sections. The Presto is exhilarating.

The Andante is beautiful, the recorded balance allowing much contrast between high and low string pizzicatos. Karajan finds the right balance between impetuosity and restraint as the movement veers out of control, then rights itself. The swirling finale is brilliant, too. The themes flit and dart about, with only the low strings and horns grounding things. And those six final, stunning chords emerge quite triumphantly from the dissonance. For me, this performance fully merits the legendary status it has attained.

Michael Steinberg's illuminating essay on the Sibelius Sixth (The Symphony, Oxford University Press) stresses the lightness of the scoring and the almost weightless quality that the music attains (he calls the symphony "mysteriously discarnate"). Karajan's recording could be used to illustrate that point, as the Berlin strings float all over the first movement. This is truly delightful. The timing is almost a minute longer than his 1980 digital remake (EMI), but you wouldn't know it until you checked. The remastered DG sound is also brighter and has more presence than the somewhat dull-sounding later version. There is more feeling in this earlier recording, more of a sense both of yearning and of delight; and then, the dark cloud at the end. If I seem to be waxing poetic, this movement simply makes one (or me, anyway) feel that way. For once, Karajan is close to Maazel's conception; more recently, Paavo Berglund's Chamber Orchestra of Europe version on Finlandia comes close to this kind of animation, but at a quicker tempo.

The amorphous quality of the second movement also comes through. If the first movement is joyful, this one is meditative, or at least has reserved its judgment. The "forest murmurs" section is perfectly paced and played. With the third movement, we pick up where we left off in the first, with harp punctuations and brass eruptions producing an even more animated response. This is the one place where the two Karajan recordings are practically identical, and identically effective. Vänska's wonderful recording can match Karajan for character here, and the BIS recording is even more atmospheric.

In the last movement, the burnished quality of the Berlin strings is immediately to the fore, and the chorale quality of the opening minutes is strongly characterized. This movement is more grounded, partly through Karajan's more emphatic presentation of the emerging themes within a timing longer than many respected versions (though Berglund's Helsinki recording is much longer). There is real passion in this music, as Steinberg points out, and Karajan captures it. Sibelius is said to have considered Karajan the best conductor of his music (!), and, based on this Sixth, I can just believe it.

DG has provided four tracks for the Seventh Symphony, and Karajan's performance follows that scheme: while the sections form one organic whole, each is strongly differentiated. The choralelike character of the first section elicits noble playing from the Berlin brass and strings, while the quicker second section (which starting point seems somewhat arbitrary) features playful exchanges between the winds and strings until the darkening C-Minor episode. The ghost of the Sixth Symphony returns in the third section, which is characterized by the same simple sincerity of the playing. The intensity of the final section is quite moving, and the triumph of the last few measures seems that much more deserved.

Of the substantial fillers for these two generous discs, Tapiola is the obvious addition to this program of later Sibelius. As with the symphonies, Karajan's performance of the tone poem is more emphatic, its themes more inflected, than in recordings by such notable Sibelius interpreters as Vänska, Ashkenazy, and C. Davis. This tendency gives the piece more character than it sometimes receives. The Swan of Tuonela doesn't, strictly speaking, belong on this program, but such a sympathetic performance is welcome wherever it occurs. Karajan again projects a heightened interpretation, and misses some of the quiet dignity of Sir Colin Davis (Philips), for instance. But it is a pleasure to hear this kind of emotion in a Karajan performance.

The Berlin Philharmonic manages Sibelius's rough-hewn phrases with uncharacteristic directness, and if the recorded sound isn't quite as vivid as on the contemporaneous Maazel/VPO recordings, it is still a vast improvement over the BPO of the glassy, glossy 80s. I find it hard to endorse Karajan recordings, in light of so much of his history. But I must state that I found these performances to be fully worthy of their legendary status, and as Steve Reich said about Richard Wagner, we just have to lump it.

-- Christopher Abbot, FANFARE [11/1999]
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Works on This Recording

Symphony no 4 in A minor, Op. 63 by Jean Sibelius
Conductor:  Herbert von Karajan
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1911; Finland 
Date of Recording: 1965 
Venue:  Christ Church, West Berlin, Germany 
Length: 36 Minutes 8 Secs. 
Symphony no 5 in E flat major, Op. 82 by Jean Sibelius
Conductor:  Herbert von Karajan
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1915/1919; Finland 
Date of Recording: 1964-65 
Venue:  Christ Church, West Berlin, Germany 
Length: 31 Minutes 34 Secs. 
Symphony no 6 in D minor, Op. 104 by Jean Sibelius
Conductor:  Herbert von Karajan
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1923; Finland 
Date of Recording: 1967 
Venue:  Christ Church, West Berlin, Germany 
Length: 28 Minutes 49 Secs. 
Symphony no 7 in C major, Op. 105 by Jean Sibelius
Conductor:  Herbert von Karajan
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1924; Finland 
Date of Recording: 1967 
Venue:  Christ Church, West Berlin, Germany 
Length: 23 Minutes 18 Secs. 
Tapiola, Op. 112 by Jean Sibelius
Conductor:  Herbert von Karajan
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1926; Finland 
Date of Recording: 1964-65 
Venue:  Christ Church, West Berlin, Germany 
Length: 20 Minutes 11 Secs. 
Lemminkäinen Suite, Op. 22: no 3, Swan of Tuonela by Jean Sibelius
Conductor:  Herbert von Karajan
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1893-1897; Finland 
Date of Recording: 1965 
Venue:  Christ Church, West Berlin, Germany 
Length: 7 Minutes 42 Secs. 

Sound Samples

Symphony No.4 in A minor, Op.63: 1. Tempo molto moderato, quasi adagio
Symphony No.4 in A minor, Op.63: 2. Allegro molto vivace
Symphony No.4 in A minor, Op.63: 3. Il tempo largo
Symphony No.4 in A minor, Op.63: 4. Allegro
The Swan of Tuonela, Op.22, No.2: Andante molto sostenuto
Symphony No.5 In E Flat, Op.82: 1. Tempo molto moderato - Largamente -
Symphony No.5 In E Flat, Op.82: 2. Allegro moderato - Presto
Symphony No.5 In E Flat, Op.82: 3. Andante mosso, quasi allegretto
Symphony No.5 In E Flat, Op.82: 4. Allegro molto
Symphony No.6 in D minor, Op.104: 1. Allegro molto moderato
Symphony No.6 in D minor, Op.104: 2. Allegretto moderato
Symphony No.6 in D minor, Op.104: 3. Poco vivace
Symphony No.6 in D minor, Op.104: 4. Allegro molto
Symphony No.7 in C, Op.105: Adagio -
Symphony No.7 in C, Op.105: Vivacissimo - Adagio -
Symphony No.7 in C, Op.105: Allegro molto moderato - Allegro moderato -
Symphony No.7 in C, Op.105: Vivace - Presto - Adagio - Largamente molto -
Tapiola, Op.112

Customer Reviews

Average Customer Review:  1 Customer Review )
 Great Sibelius! December 6, 2012 By Gail M. (Goleta, CA) See All My Reviews "I have loved these performances since they were first released about fifty years ago, and here they are in superb remastered sound and a convenient package! As well or better than any other conductor, Karajan brought out the icy menace and primitive remote beauty in this music. Particularly fine are Tapiola and Symphony #4, but there are no weak ones in this set. At the time of these recordings the Berlin Philharmonic was still recorded to sound like a real orchestra, not the blended amorphous instrument of the late 1970s and early 1980s under this conductor. You can't get better Sibelius than this." Report Abuse
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