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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
The Seven Symphonies

Symphony No. 1 (1898) [38.03]
Symphony No. 2 (1902) [47.14]
Symphony No. 3 (1907) [29.31]
Symphony No. 4 (1911) [36.05]
Symphony No. 5 (1917) [31.35]
Symphony No. 6 (1918) [28.50]
Symphony No. 7 (1920) [23.29]
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (2, 4-7)
Helsinki Radio Symphony Orchestra (1, 3)
Okko Kamu (1-3)
Herbert von Karajan (4-7)
rec. Helsinki, Oct 1972 (1,3); Berlin Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Feb 1970 (2), Feb, May, Sept 1965 (4), Feb 1965 (5), Apr, Sept 1967 (6, 7). ADD
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON TRIO 474 353-2 [3CDs: 78.57+77.47+78.39]

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 Jensen.

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 Seventh Symphony.

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.

Rob Barnett



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