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CD: Crotchet


Jean SIBELIUS (1865–1957)
Symphony No.4 in A minor, op.63 (1911) [38:41]
Symphony No.5 in E flat, op.82 (1915/1919) [32:09]
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
rec. 27-28 December 1976 (op.63); September, October 1976 (op.82), Philharmonie, Berlin). ADD
Experience Classicsonline

Let me be quite honest with you. I was looking forward to hearing this disk so I could tell you that Karajan in 1976 hadn’t got a real grip on Sibelius, unlike his Philharmonia recordings from the 1950s. Oh yes, I was looking forward to giving this disk a real panning!
However. After eating mouthfuls of humble pie - without custard and cream - I can admit that I was wrong and tell you that this is simply one of the very, very best recorded performances of Sibelius’s 4th Symphony I’ve ever heard. It is quite staggering. First of all, you need to turn the volume right up to get the full feel of the dynamic range then you are in for a real experience. The first movement, with its huge brass cries, angular string writing and general feeling of otherworldliness, is brought fully to life in a performance of such stature that it is truly horrifying. There are a couple of seemingly slightly tentative brass entries, but Karajan builds the tension slowly and deliberately with hair-raising inevitability. The scherzo which follows it is light and airy until the tempo is halved and we’re back in that other place. Karajan plays the slow movement as if it were one of Bruckner’s monumental Adagios, allowing the music to grow from the simple germ of the flute idea at the start. The climax, when it comes, is massive and all-embracing – didn’t Mahler tell Sibelius that the Symphony had to encompass the whole world? That’s how Karajan sees it and it is overwhelming. The finale, with its gleam of hope in the sound of the glockenspiel, still seems desperate in its utterance. Karajan keeps a tight rein on the music and even the slight slowing of tempo, after the big climax, works as part of his conception. Then we are left with bleak unison As. No victory, no hard-won battle this, just a resignation to the inevitable.
Some may find some of the sound too sumptuous for this most bleak of Sibelius’s symphonies, but that must not cloud your judgement for this is a performance of such stature and power that it cannot, and must not, be ignored.
Might I mention that the very best recording of this Symphony is by Tauno Hannikainen and the USSR State Symphony Orchestra, which was available here on Russian Melodiya (DO 4794) for a short time in the 1960s (and now on CD: Bearac BRC-2861 at His is a performance of elemental power, the feeling of the cold Finnish landscape filtered through and across the Russian Steppes. We will never hear another performance like that ever again and it is an LP well worth searching out and good luck in your search. If you manage to find a copy you will not be disappointed. Until you can get your hands on that disc get this and be amazed at, and admire, the sheer breadth of Karajan’s vision. Stunning.
Karajan’s handling of the 5th Symphony is almost equally fine, but it lacks the searing vision which fills the performance of the 4th Symphony. But it is good – the opening section of the tripartite first movement hits exactly the right tempo and feel. It moves gently forwards, the discussion between the woodwinds is lovely, the second section, with tremolando strings accompanying distant bassoon is suitably mysterious and the build up to the transition to the Allegro is skilfully handled. The only flaw in the whole movement is at the very end where an over-abundance of drums spoils the overall musical effect. The slow movement is well paced and the gentle variations, woodwind led, are delightful. The finale, with its rushing strings and second subject suggestive of a flock of birds flying overhead, is magnificent but the slow build up to the final peroration is slightly too fast and the music is robbed of some of its gravitas. The final hammer blows really are too fast and not sufficiently widely spaced to make their full effect. Barbirolli, in his excellent recording with the Halle (EMI CMS 5672992 – see review), is much to be preferred here.
Containing such a magnificent performance of the 4th Symphony, and despite my slight reservations concerning the 5th Symphony, this is an outstanding bargain and should be on every record shelf.
Bob Briggs

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