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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Symphony no. 4 in A minor op. 63 [38:41]
Symphony no. 5 in E flat major op. 82 [32:09]
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
rec. 27-28 December 1976 (no. 4), September/October 1976 (no. 5), Philharmonie, Berlin. ADD
EMI CLASSICS 5090272 [70:50]
Experience Classicsonline

Karajan conducted Sibeliusís first two symphonies occasionally, the third never, and returned often to the last four.

The most controversial of his interpretations was the Fourth Symphony. Not, I hasten to say, because he wilfully distorted it. Certain aspects are fundamentally Sibelian. Tempi are well-chosen and steadily held, allowing the music to cross its peculiar landscape with breadth and inevitability. But somehow, the landscape isnít quite the one weíre used to. At times the brass snarl convincingly, but the strings following the first brass outburst bring a consolation not usually found in this most uncompromising of all Sibelian wastes. Often in the slow movement they sigh with a Mahlerian nostalgia.

Sibelius can be a very mysterious composer, especially in this symphony, but he is never mystical in the Brucknerian sense. His music seems to come from a pre-religious, pre-human past. Karajanís Sibelius communes with nature, but as a seemingly mystical, religious experience. Many a horn chorale apparently hails from St. Florian while Brucknerian Lšndler seems to want to emerge from the scherzo.

All this is not without interest. I wouldnít recommend it to anyone wanting to get to know the symphony for the first time, but those who find Sibeliusís landscape too inhumanly bleak may find a point of entry here. Those with large Sibelius collections may like to ponder over it. In view of the fact that Karajan does not distort tempi, rhythm and so on, just why are we so sure that he is finding colours and moods that are not supposed to be there?

Another conductor whose outsize personality could sometimes impose itself on the music was Bernstein. In Sibelius, however, at least in his 1960s New York recordings Ė I canít speak for the highly controversial unfinished late cycle Ė he identified himself to a remarkable degree with the composerís world. His Fourth is a highly disciplined, taut traversal with a latent power that can still shock. Possibly Beecham is more gripping still but pre-war sound is pre-war sound while the CBS recording, if a little close, still sounds fine. Without pretending to know all the many alternatives I canít imagine anybody being disappointed with Bernstein.

The Fifth gets a less unusual interpretation. The trouble in 1976 may have been growing over-familiarity. Or maybe the syndrome which undermines all dictators sooner or later, namely, ďit doesnít matter if I donít pull all my stops out because my third best is still so much better than anyone elseís bestĒ. The first movementís gradual acceleration is reasonably charted but seems sluggish at times. The dotted string figures around 02:45 and again around 05:45 are completely swamped by the brass, yet they are vitally important and every other recording I heard as comparison sees they get a sharp profile. Karajan can still release charismatic energy when the scherzo section arrives but towards the end of the movement the brass and timpani are allowed to blast everyone else off the stage. In short, a performance veering between the lackadaisical and the tub-thumping.

The second movement is fair enough, though the vague resemblance of a string phrase to one in Tchaikovskyís ďPathťtiqueĒ tempts Karajan to some lachrymose phrasing we could have done without. Best is probably the finale. The swans certainly circle in a blaze of brassy glory, but as the music broadens out towards the end it gets a little bogged down and some melodic strands in the final stages have to be supplied from memories of other performances. I should like to hear Karajanís earlier versions of this work since I get the idea this may be a fine interpretation gone stale.

No staleness about Bernsteinís NY recording. Everything is sharply etched and powerfully projected. The first movement is overwhelming. I found his staccatos a little over-emphatic in the second movement. Itís perhaps not a question of the staccatos in themselves, but of a slowish tempi at which they are bound to sound too emphatic. Of the performances available to me, the swiftest is Sir Alexander Gibsonís Classic for Pleasure LP, and at this tempo the similarly clucking staccato fall into place. The marking, after all, is ďAndante mosso, quasi allegrettoĒ. Still, if Bernsteinís coupling of† Symphonies Four and Five is available itís undeniably a great Sibelius disc.

I must say that over the years, the Gibson CFP has given me all I want from this symphony, for all that the (not then Royal) Scottish National Orchestra was no match for those of Berlin and New York. He is unusually acute in showing how the outer movements are mirror images of one another. The first begins broadly and climbs to reach a plateau where everything is spinning yet somehow the exertion of the climb is over; the finale begins spinning vitally yet climbs again to rest on a broad plateau where once more the struggle is over and the mountain-top stands before us in all its glory. With Gibson it is very clear just where the plateau has been reached and the end is in sight. But I donít think this is available on CD and Gibson was such an infuriatingly unpredictable conductor that its success is no guarantee at all of the success of his earlier (Decca) or later (Chandos) versions.

One way or another, I hope Iíve made it clear that this isnít a disc to help either Sibeliusís or Karajanís reputation.

Christopher Howell 



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