Karajan’s DGG Sibelius recordings are still very well regarded especially the magnificent Fifth Symphony and the dark, desperate Fourth. These CDs, reissued as a box set by Warner, were Karajan’s later recordings for EMI and at their best are magnificent. Not everything is fully recommendable but the playing of the Berlin Philharmonic is stupendous, with fabulous string tone, resonant brass, immaculate wind playing and overwhelming timps - sometimes rather too much so.
Symphony No.4 is very impressive indeed but the orchestral tone is quite different from the earlier DGG version. The previously undernourished and stark sounds are replaced with something far more romantic and lush. Some listeners will be surprised that such a grim piece could be delivered in such a way but it really does work. The symphony is still doom-laden but in the slow movement, by way of an example, the atmosphere is claustrophobic and neurotic instead of the usual bleak, austere approach so often encountered in other interpretations. It’s all rather gripping and beautiful. The finale, using a glockenspiel rather than tubular bells, ends in total disaster just as the composer intended. This is a massive, grand interpretation and it is special in its own way. The recording quality is top-drawer.
Symphony No.5 on DGG is a great performance. This one is on a par with it but with the added distinction of superior recording quality. The level of detail is phenomenal especially in the woodwinds. In the first movement the horns and trumpets are thrilling and the strings are given tremendous depth and dynamic range. The orchestra were clearly motivated by Karajan during this session to such an extent that sometimes they go over the top. The timp player dominates the end of the movement to the detriment of everyone else. The finale is magnificent, just lacking the special insights of Barbirolli but the Berlin Phil is in a different class to Sir John’s Halle. The final chords are placed slightly too close together for my taste but overall this is a very fine version.
Symphony No.1 came as a pleasant surprise. I bought the LP when it was first released and dismissed it after one playing. At the time Maazel on Decca was king. The opening clarinet solo is too loud but after that you really need to hear the first movement. It is overwhelming and it totally engulfs the listener. The orchestra plays as if their very lives depend on it. This is orchestral playing at its very finest. I wonder what Sibelius would have thought about it. The slow movement is beautifully done but the central section doesn’t have the Nordic chill of Maazel or Collins. This is southern European Sibelius. The scherzo is rather manic and forceful and the finale is as romantic as you could wish - wonderful strings in the big tune. There are miscalculations and a few less than perfect entries throughout the symphony - ragged woodwind ensemble and a bad start to the finale, but this is a real performance. There are some stunning sounds to be heard.
Symphony No.6 has a different approach to 1, 4 and 5. Karajan is less overtly romantic and the string tone, still marvellous, is thinned back. Woodwinds are bright and gleaming and the end-result is clear and crystalline. This symphony doesn’t always convince in Maazel’s wonderful cycle. Karajan’s EMI recording is superb, similar to his DGG version in many ways but the pallid 1960s recording is total outclassed by the EMI engineers. The symphony is one of the Cinderellas of the cycle but here it emerges as a masterpiece in its own right.
Symphony No.2 is the one disappointment. Neither Karajan nor the orchestra sound particularly convincing. The opening string theme of the first movement isn’t together and the first oboe entry is curiously out of focus. Even the climax sounds dull and unmotivated. There are a number of tentative entries throughout the work that cry out for a retake. The finale is so slow that even a great orchestra, which the Berlin Phil certainly is, struggles to maintain line and momentum.
Now to the fillers. Finlandia is bombastic and overdone. Karajan’s DGG version is to be preferred. The opening Intermezzo of the Karelia Suite has one of the worst brass entries I’ve ever heard and it never really recovers. Even the playful Alla marcia sounds heavy-handed. En Saga is a great performance with a gentle opening that suddenly springs into life at 3:30. The closing pages are sheer poetry. The Swan of Tuonela is a romantic beast sailing along in warm waters rather than an icy sea but of its kind it is still very beautiful - Sargent’s Vienna performance springs to mind in terms of a direct comparison. Then we come to the awe-inspiring Tapiola and what a performance this turns out to be. Much has been made of one cello note being misread - even the booklet refers to it - but just forget this. What we have is a chilling, magnificent account. The earlier DGG is a great performance but Karajan beats it in this later version. The sound is clear, highly detailed and with superb brass sonorities. Again, there are passing insecurities of ensemble - had Karajan’s beat become unclear? - but structurally this is a great Tapiola.
Karajan was flying the flag for Sibelius at a time when he was largely ignored outside Finland, the UK and America. It’s easy to forget the importance of his recordings. This set is a timely reminder.