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CD: MDT AmazonUK AmazonUS

Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Symphony No. 4 in A minor, Op.63 [39:06]
Symphony No. 5 in E flat, Op.82 [30:06]
Symphony No. 6 in D minor, Op.104 [27:19]
Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op.105 [21:30]
Tapiola, Op.112 [19:25]
Berlin Philharmonic/Herbert von Karajan (Op.63, Op. 104, Op.112); City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Sir Simon Rattle (Op.82); Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra/Paavo Berglund (Op.105)
rec. 27-28 December 1976, Philharmonie, Berlin (Op. 63); 21 February 1987 Butterworth Hall, Warwick Arts Centre, University of Warwick, Coventry (Op.82);
16-20 November 1980, Philharmonie, Berlin (Op.104); February 1984 All Saints Church, Tooting, London (Op.105); 28-29 December 1976, Philharmonie, Berlin (Op.112)
EMI CLASSICS 9 07246 2 [69:43 + 68:21]

Experience Classicsonline

This Sibelius set is the sixth release in EMI’s 20th-Century Classics series. These double CD sets are intended to demonstrate the range and quality rare and popular twentieth-century recordings from the cavernous EMI Classics and Virgin Classics catalogues. The composers range from Elgar to Ligeti, from Vaughan Williams to Tcherepnin and from Rodrigo to Xenakis.

The present set consists of well chosen accounts of Sibelius’s last four symphonies composed 1911-24 and the tone poem Tapiola. Karajan and the Berlin Phil play the Symphonies 4 and 6 and Tapiola. Incidentally of the many recordings Karajan made of Sibelius symphonies he never tackled the Third whether on record or in concert (see review). Karajan’s Symphony No. 4 is remarkable for its great strength and grandeur. The opening movement is especially bleak and shadowy bordering on the mysterious. The Berlin brass contributions are stunning. Overall the vast resources of strength and energy that Karajan brings to the Symphony No. 6 are impressive. I was struck by the sense of serenity in the Allegretto moderato and the Scherzo gallops along relentlessly drawing on seemingly immense reserves of energy. Sensibly paced Karajan’s Tapiola is an account of gripping emotional tension. One can almost hear the nature sounds and feel the icy chill of Nordic forests.

From their complete set of the Sibelius symphonies Sir Simon Rattle and the CBSO provide the account of the Symphony No. 5. I was immediately struck by its rangy and expansive qualities. The opening movement is full of restlessness and pent-up anxiety. The second movement, depicting a Nordic landscape, is remarkable for glorious string playing although every section of the orchestra excels. In the closing movement the music gains in weight and movement and delivers a shattering climax.

The final symphony is heard from Paavo Berglund and the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra. This recording forms part of Berglund’s second complete set (review). His opening Adagio has weight and astonishing grandeur. A chill wind gusts in the Un pochettino meno adagio. Later with the rapt tenderness of the string playing one could be huddled over a log fire sheltering from the cold. Overall Berglund’s interpretation is fresh, well paced and highly satisfactory.

Sibelius’s symphonies are extremely well served in the catalogue. There are a considerable number of excellent competing accounts. All of the following sets have been commended and have provided me with much listening pleasure: Sir John Barbirolli/Hallé/EMI Classics, Vladimir Ashkenazy/Philharmonia/Decca, Sir Colin Davis/LSO/LSO Live, Sir Colin Davis/LSO/RCA Red Seal, Osmo Vänskä/Lahti Symphony Orchestra/BIS (soon to reappear as part of the Bis Edition alongside many fascinating alternative movements and episodes), Sir Simon Rattle/CBSO/EMI, Leif Segerstam/Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra (Ondine) and Leif Segerstam/Danish NSO/Brilliant Classics (originally Chandos).

Karajan provides an alternative set of Nos. 4-7 and Tapiola that warrants consideration. These are Karajan’s earlier and much acclaimed accounts with the Berlin Philharmonic from 1965-67 at the Jesus Christ Church, Berlin. They are available as part of a double set in ‘The Originals’ series on Deutsche Grammophon on 457 748-2 (c/w The Swan of Tuonela).

Good as these performances are I would be mystified why anyone would want to purchase this two disc collection of Sibelius’s last four symphonies and Tapiola from three different conductors and three different orchestras when it is easy to find an excellent complete set for just a few pounds more.

Michael Cookson








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