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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Symphony No.2 [43:47]
Symphony No.4 [36:08]
Philharmonia Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
rec. Kingsway Hall, London March 1960 (2) and July 1953 (4)
PRAGA DIGITALS PRD250354 [79:55]

Nowadays, in an age where there is a glut of Sibelius recordings to choose from, it’s easy to forget that Karajan was flying the flag for the composer at a time when his music was largely ignored outside of Finland, the UK and America. This release is a timely reminder of the excellence of the conductor’s early work with the Philharmonia Orchestra and it’s good to welcome these historic recordings back into circulation.

Karajan’s 1980 EMI recording of Symphony No.2 was a huge disappointment. Neither the conductor nor the orchestra sound particularly convincing. The reading is dull and unmotivated with a number of tentative entries just crying out for retakes. The finale is so slow that even the Berlin Philharmonic struggles to maintain line and momentum.

So how does this earlier recording from 1960 compare? Let’s start off with the timings.

1960 9:29 13:45 6:47 13:46 43:47
1980 9:54 14:37 6:43 16:34 47:48

The readings are broadly similar, except for the Allegro Moderato finale where Karajan had slowed down from a flowing tempo in 1960 to the laboured stuck-in-the-mud remake of 1980. The Philharmonia version is glorious, with orchestral playing of the highest calibre. Many would argue that this is the finest orchestra we have ever produced in England. The interpretation is thankfully presented without the hollow gestures of the later Berlin recording. It is a large scale romantic version with fabulous string tone and immaculate ensemble. There is a slight loss of momentum when Karajan pulls back the tempo at 8:30 in the second movement but this is a very minor issue. The Vivacissimo features a spectacularly recorded tuba solo and the recording is capped by a finale that is as grand as anyone could wish for, with the brass in superlative form. This is a great performance in natural, full bodied stereo sound that completely belies its age. It goes into the list of top recommendations.

Karajan’s 1976 EMI recording of Symphony No.4 is very impressive indeed but the orchestral tone is quite different to the earlier DGG issue from 1965. The previously undernourished and stark sounds are replaced with something far more romantic and lush. The symphony is still doom laden but in the slow movement the atmosphere is claustrophobic and neurotic instead of bleak. This is a massive, grand interpretation and it is special in its own way but rather different to the 1965 DGG.

So how does this version from 1953 compare? Looking again at the timings as a starting point:

1953 9:44 4:59 12:03 9:22 36:08
1965 9:56 4:47 12:00 9:22 36:05
1976 10:40 5:27 12:51 10:03 39:01

There is a striking similarity between the two earlier versions. Sibelius himself was an admirer of the Philharmonia recording. It is certainly the coldest and most desolate of the 3 Karajans on offer. The first movement also has an underlying menace matched by no other conductor. Allowances have to be made for the 1953 mono recording but it is beautifully balanced and the Philharmonia strings are sonorous and dark. The ear quickly adjusts to the lean, dry sound. This is a tough, intense reading that is well worth hearing.

There is, however, something for the potential purchaser to consider. These performances, in what to my ears sound like equally good transfers, are also available on a budget 2 CD set from Major Classics (M2CD009). This also includes a patchy 5th Symphony, Finlandia and an especially good Tapiola from 1952 and 1953, again with the Philharmonia (review). It’s a case of pay your money and take your choice. I can recommend both in equal measure.
John Whitmore



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