None of these recordings is new on the block.
They are known quantities - especially the Karajans.
DG's nerve and judgement has held steady for
approaching forty years. Were they ever tempted, I wonder, to
troop off to the studio for another Sibelius cycle? Other labels
have flitted: Gibson to Segerstam (Chandos), Bernstein to Maazel
(Sony), Collins to Ashkenazy to Blomstedt (Decca), Järvi
to Vänskä (Bis), Leaper to Sakari (Naxos). While DG
may have been tempted they have clung to their 'horses for courses'
cycle started in 1965 by Karajan and finished in 1972 by Karajan
protégé, Okko Kamu.
Karajan's well known aversion towards the earlier
symphonies was almost certainly the determining factor in splitting
the duties. Karajan's 'rod of iron' rule over DG would surely
have guaranteed his own completion of the seven if he had really
wanted to record them. Interestingly enough Kamu was permitted
to record with Karajan's own orchestra for the Second. He had
to record numbers 1 and 3 with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra.
With them he also recorded the Karelia Suite and a distinguished
complete Lemminkainen Suite which, at that time, swept
an underpopulated board comprising Groves and the RLPO (EMI),
Lukas Foss and the Buffalo PO (Nonesuch) and that old Decca Eclipse
standard, the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Thomas
I had not realised until very recently that Karajan
had insisted on including Sibelius's Fourth Symphony in
his first Berlin Phil concert such was his identity with the work.
Within three years he had taken this most unromantic of the Sibelius
symphonies into the studio. Karajan brings to the piece high tension
and impressively full string tone. It is an estimable performance
though without the ample glamour of the Ashkenazy version reissued
recently. Karajan's is a virtuoso performance in which despite
his romantic pedigree he holds excess in check.
He is similarly admirable in the Sixth Symphony.
This is a performance that majors on the work's athletic and poetic
prowess, its spiritual identity with the Midnight Sun. Passion
is alive in Karajan's reading but it is channelled through some
pallid yet strangely radiant-toned playing from the Berlin strings.
Unanimity and a bleached glow characterise this recording which
has not faded over the years. I knew it first, some thirty years
ago, from a very early full price DG cassette coupled with the
The Karajan Seventh will always labour
under the shadow of Mravinsky's almost contemporaneous Moscow/Leningrad
Phil recording (BMG). Karajan's lacks the forbidding supercharged
virility and hieratic eloquence of the Mravinsky. It may be a
failing but unless the trombone has the braying fallibility of
the Russian trombonist I tend to want to avoid the recording.
It is nonetheless a version that communicates commitment and an
epic sense though playing for no more than 23:29 minutes.
Kamu's Helsinki sessions bore two very fine symphony
recordings: a Third Symphony full of character and most
artfully paced and a First Symphony that is spacious yet
does not have from the sudden losses of momentum from which his
version of the Second suffers. Speaking of which, the Second
Symphony still sounds good most of the time and at times convinces
you that Kamu’s is the best version you have ever heard. Each
time, however, it then seems to lose its way. Rather than the
surging ungovernable excitement of a Beecham (EMI Classics
or Beecham Edition) or a Barbirolli (the Chesky version - certainly
not his later version with EMI) there is a relaxation that can
disappoint. The transparency of the string sound is smudged and
smeared (try II at 5.54). The opacity of the strings only impinges
on the listener's ears once or twice. At other times the definition
of interweaving lines is well put across. The rapped out climax
of the finale and the ‘gulped’ end phrases register strongly.
If you are anything like me you will find yourself alternately
exalted and disappointed - a roller-coaster. I liked this much
better this time around than two years ago when I reviewed it
as part of a 2 disc DG Sibelius Panorama collection.
The Fifth Symphony, in Karajan's grip,
is broad, tense with latent energy, alive to the winds from the
Nordic steppes, brimming with a brooding heroism and passion heard
first, in less mature form in the Lemminkainen Legends
(a must hear in the Ormandy version on HMV). The brass are simply
magnificent: rich, burred, eminent and commanding. The delicacy
of the solo trumpet at tr. 5 3.02 is a joy to hear. This is one
of the great Sibelius recordings and it still sounds excellent
as the squat hammer-blows at the end attest.
This is not the first time this collaborative
cycle has appeared yoked together. In the days of LP there were
several boxed sets with exactly the same content: I recall one
in the DGG (at it then was) Symphony Edition. Otherwise these
recordings have been issued in one-offs and as parts of anthologies
(Originals, Basics and Panorama series).
Karajan tackled parts of the cycle of seven during
the fifties, sixties and eighties. The DG salvo was the most extensive
comprising the four here. The fifties saw him record symphonies
4 and 5 in mono for EMI Classics. This was with the Philharmonia.
The Eighties are preserved in EMI Classics Double Fforte
7243 5 74858 2 (reviewed elsewhere on the site). While his final
Fourth, Fifth and Sixth are in that case still good the First
struck me as somewhat disengaged.
This is a specially priced box. To get all seven
symphonies onto three CDs one compromise has had to be made. In
this case the first movement of the Fourth Symphony is at the
end of CD2 and the remaining three at the start of CD3. This is
presumably on the basis that if you have to split a Sibelius symphony
then choose the most elliptical and enigmatic … that seems to
be the logic. However if this Symphony is your favourite you might
want to look elsewhere or await the day when the Karajan Fourth
is released complete on one CD ... or of course you could make
a composite CDR.
And by the way: yes, you could, without undue
compromise, make this your only Sibelius symphony set. If you
want astonishing sound quality and exalted aesthetics then go
for Decca's Ashkenazy set (see
review). We are fortunate with Sibelius. I cannot think of
a completely bad set of Sibelius symphonies though some are pretty
mixed (Barbirolli, EMI; Abravanel, Vanguard; Maazel, Sony). This
DG production is a classic set which still sounds fresh as a daisy
… albeit an analogue one. There are very good reasons for these
versions holding their place in the catalogue. Symphonies 2 and
7 may not be overwhelming but the others stand proud and unblushing
in the Sibelius stakes. If you had not already succumbed now is
the time to get this cycle at rock bottom price.
Be warned: this set will not be in the shops
until 7 July 2003.