Karajan conducted Sibeliusís first two symphonies occasionally,
the third never, and returned often to the last four.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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
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
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.
way or another, I hope Iíve made it clear that this isnít
a disc to help either Sibeliusís or Karajanís reputation.