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Karajan: Sibelius, 1976-1981


Release Date: 05/27/2014 
Label:  Warner Classics   Catalog #: 633619   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Jean Sibelius
Conductor:  Herbert von Karajan
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Number of Discs: 4 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

Make no mistake, Karajan was a very great Sibelius conductor. He left four recordings of the Fifth Symphony, and two of the Second, a work that he didn’t particularly care for (and it shows–more on that shortly). When these late Karajan/early digital versions of the symphonies were released, they gave critics a shock. Gone, seemingly, was that ultra smooth, creamy Berlin sound so evident from the last round of Sibelius–and much else–on Deutsche Grammophon. The playing here is raw and edgy, if no less virtuosic. This being Berlin, the strings are still gorgeous, but now the brass blare, the timpani pound, and the woodwinds pierce through the texture plaintively. Climaxes are hair-raising. Check out the opening of Finlandia. There is a world Read more of difference between a good performance of this chestnut and a great one, and this is the best of the best. Indeed, the tone poems are all fabulous, including an En Saga full of primal excitement, and a Tapiola whose final storm will crush your soul. Even that famous wrong note in the cellos matters not a whit.

Karajan only made this single recording of the First Symphony, but it’s a show-stopper, thrillingly exciting and just about ideally paced. The finale has seldom captured the music’s wildness as well as its Tchaikovskian lyrical intensity with such power. In the Sixth, the swiftest of Karajan’s three readings of the work, he is one of the few conductors who has the courage (Bernstein was another) to play the finale’s concluding Allegro assai at tempo. Why so many conductors, including Berglund of all people, can’t take the composer at his word makes no sense at all. The result here is magical–the music soars as it must. The Fourth and Fifth, like the Sixth, were Karajan specialties, and if you already own Karajan’s earlier DG or EMI recordings, the approach has remained remarkably consistent, and totally convincing save, once again, for that extra, idiomatic roughness in sonority characteristic of these performances.

That brings us to the one misfire in this collection: the Second. The first three movements go well enough, but the finale trudges along, lasting a merciless sixteen minutes. The trumpets and trombones sound as though they were placed offstage, and the end result has nothing of the triumphant surge of sound that Sibelius envisaged. Even worse, the repetitious second subject that precedes the coda takes an interminable amount of time to get there. It’s just weird, as are the early digital sonics generally, which shift from work to work, even from movement to movement. Was the scherzo of the First Symphony recorded in another room, in another country, on another planet? Remastering can only do so much, and in general the sound has been cleaned up either for this set or in previous incarnations to the degree that the performances are perfectly listenable as long as you’re not an audiophile. Certainly the musical value of these performances is unquestionable.

-- David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com
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Works on This Recording

1.
Finlandia, Op. 26 by Jean Sibelius
Conductor:  Herbert von Karajan
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: Finland 
Date of Recording: 12/1976 
Venue:  Philarmonie, Berlin 
Length: 9 Minutes 38 Secs. 
2.
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: 09/1976 
Venue:  Philarmonie, Berlin 
Length: 8 Minutes 31 Secs. 
3.
En saga, Op. 9 by Jean Sibelius
Conductor:  Herbert von Karajan
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1892/1902; Finland 
Date of Recording: 12/1976 
Venue:  Philarmonie, Berlin 
Length: 18 Minutes 24 Secs. 
4.
Karelia Suite, Op. 11 by Jean Sibelius
Conductor:  Herbert von Karajan
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1893; Finland 
Date of Recording: 01/1981 
Venue:  Philarmonie, Berlin 
Length: 16 Minutes 17 Secs. 
5.
Tapiola, Op. 112 by Jean Sibelius
Conductor:  Herbert von Karajan
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1926; Finland 
Date of Recording: 12/1976 
Venue:  Philarmonie, Berlin 
Length: 19 Minutes 23 Secs. 
6.
Symphony no 1 in E minor, Op. 39 by Jean Sibelius
Conductor:  Herbert von Karajan
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1899; Finland 
7.
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 
8.
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 
9.
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 
10.
Symphony no 2 in D major, Op. 43 by Jean Sibelius
Conductor:  Herbert von Karajan
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1901-1902; Finland 
Date of Recording: 11/1980 

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