from both audiences and critics during Sibelius’s lifetime,
it was perhaps inevitable that the composer should be neglected
by the former and disparaged by the latter during the 1940s
and 1950s. But it was during this period that Herbert von Karajan
became one of his most respected interpreters.
As Richard Osborne,
in his succinct and erudite notes suggests, “A mountain man
by upbringing and inclination, Karajan appears to have an inborn
understanding of Sibelius’s mastery of time and space, of the
music’s seeming inevitability. Sibelius’s highly developed sense
of form was something Karajan knew as much by intuition as anything.
He also revered the composer’s ear for soundworlds that are
integral to the music rather than applied as so much ‘skilful
is sure-footed, straightforward and swiftly-paced, without the
sentimental wallowing of some rival recordings; this is patriotism
noble, sincere and strong; those brass salvos biting and uncompromising
in their defiance. The Karelia Suite (the popular movements:
‘Intermezzo’ and ‘Alla Marcia’ here together with the more restrained
and introspective ‘Ballad’) likewise receives engagingly virile,
gem Valse Triste is here given a most soulful reading,
full of pathos. A dying woman, who has mistaken Death for her
husband, dances with him before he claims her for his own. Karajan
brings out all the nostalgic yearning of the woman and her hesitant,
then joyful waltz steps as, perhaps, she recollects former happiness,
then a faltering and a despairing acceptance of the present.
The dance gains momentum until an ebony darkness overwhelms
the music as Death triumphs. Karajan elevates Valse Triste
into something more profound than mere salon music.
En saga tended
to puzzle observers because it had no identifiable narrative
even though it is tautly evocative and atmospheric. Rather,
as Sibelius himself suggested, it is an expression of a state
of mind. However he identified the Norse mythology Edda
as a source of atmosphere. He had experienced much personal
trauma at the time of its composition and psychological shadows
are apparent as well as more overt mythological and legend inspirations
as well as those of extreme hostile environments. Karajan realises
all its excitements and atmospherics and the Berlin strings
rise to the challenge of Sibelius’s astonishingly imaginative
The Swan of Tuonela,
Sibelius’s first incontestable masterpiece, inspired by lines
from the national epic Kalevala evokes a land of death.
Sibelius explained: “Tuonela, the hell of Finnish mythology,
is surrounded by a large river with black waters and a rapid
current, on which the Swan floats majestically singing’. Again
Osborne sagely notes, “There are echoes here of the desolate
opening of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, another Karajan
speciality.” This bleak, brooding atmospheric rendition has
a baleful sense of brooding and foreboding and the cor anglais
and cello solo lines are eloquent and beautifully evocative.
Sibelius’s last great masterpiece, greatly interested Karajan.
Certainly this is a fascinating and penetrating reading of this
dark, sombre work, Karajan so imaginatively conjures vivid sound-pictures
of the terrible loneliness of the icy vastnesses and midnight
blackness of the northern forests, the screeching winds, and
the whirling snow obliterating chill landscapes. You also gain
a notion of the dread Tapio, the ancient god of the forests,
the orchestra braying terrifyingly at his approach as though
a thousand wolves were following in his wake.
readings. Another classic to treasure in this series with very