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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


 

 

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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
En Saga * (1892 rev 1901) [18:24]
The Swan of Tuonela * (Lemminkäinen Suite – 1893-7) [8:31]
Karelia Suite (1893) [16:17]
Finlandia * (1899 rev 1900) [9:38]
Valse Triste (1904) [6:03]
Tapiola * (1925-6) [19:23]
Berliner Philharmoniker/Herbert von Karajan
rec. * September, December 1976, January 1981, Philharmonie, Berlin
EMI CLASSICS GREAT RECORDINGS OF THE CENTURY 4 76846 2 [78:56]

 

 

After adulation 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 orchestration’.”

Karajan’s Finlandia 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, outgoing treatment.

Sibelius’s little 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 writing.

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.

Tapiola, 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.

Virile, atmospheric readings. Another classic to treasure in this series with very good sound.

Ian Lace 

 





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