> Jean Sibelius - Symphony No.1,4,5,6 [RB]: Classical Reviews- March 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Symphony No. 1 (1898)
Symphony No. 4 (1911)
Symphony No. 5 (1917)
Symphony No. 6 (1918)
Karelia Suite (1896)
Berlin PO/Herbert von Karajan
rec 1 (1981), 4 (1978), 5 (1977), 6 (1986), Karelia (1981)
EMI CLASSICS Double Fforte 7243 5 74858 2 [CD1 77.54; CD2 76.35]


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Karajan was no mean Sibelian and his Fifth Symphony was always worth a concentrated listen. I am by no means sympathetic to the image builder he became (I still recall buying his 1977 DG Beethoven symphonies box in which page after page was taken up with high definition studio photos of our hero). However this is to jumble the man with the music and the music, at least in Sibelius, is regal.

If his reading of the Fifth Symphony is best heard in the DG 1965 version (part of a Panorama set) this one is also very fine with majestic precision and no want of feeling or impulsive excitement. His orchestra sounds like the top flight instrument it was and is. His Fourth is broad and mysterious. It is a while since I heard the DG recording from the 1960s but I seem to recall a faster pulse than he sustains a decade or so later.

Karajan did not often dally with the First Symphony - surprising really as it is the most Tchaikovskian of the seven and Tchaikovsky was a favoured composer. This version is pretty broad and I find myself feeling less engaged by the whole span though intermittently strongly impressed for example by the work of the brass section. Turning from Romantic excess (nothing wrong with that) to the cold passionate essentials, I was moved by the Sixth Symphony. This, with the Third (the latter a work mystifyingly a closed book to Karajan - did he ever perform it - we know he never recorded the Third - why did he turn his back on it?), has long been a favourite. Here it sparkles and glows in the Nordic sun in a completely cherishable performance. A rocking Sibelian ostinato is no mean thing and Karajan's feeling for structure is always strong and communicative. The stereo byplay among the strings is a sheer delight in the first movement (try tr 7 4.34)

One of these days I hope to renew acquaintance wih Karajan's 1960s DG versions of symphonies 4-7.

If there is a downside with this set it is in the merest hint of crowded tone in the louder sections but this is likely to impinge only when listening on headphones.

I was intrigued to read that Karajan's association with Sibelius went back at least as far his conductorship of the Aachen orchestra in the 1930s. There he gave several performances of the Sixth Symphony.

Multilingual scene setting notes by Stephen Johnson.

Rob Barnett


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