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Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931)
Symphony No 4 ‘Inextinguishable’, Op 29 (1916) [38:28]
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Tapiola, Op 112 (1926) [20:15]
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
rec. February 1981/February 1984 (Sibelius), Berlin Philharmonie
Reviewed as download

It has become very fashionable these days to disparage much of the enormous legacy of recordings Herbert von Karajan set down during his lifetime. His Brahms, Schumann and Dvorak are sniffily dismissed as over-lush and grand, the earlier Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven as impossibly big-band, whilst his occasional forays into baroque music are dismissed without so much as a listen. These aren't views I personally share, but it seems as if the only music which continues to escape such criticism is that from Karajan's own war-torn and troubled twentieth century. His recordings made of music by Strauss, Puccini, Mahler, Debussy, Ravel, as well as the Second Viennese School continue to be amongst the top of any list of recommended versions, while the Shostakovich Tenth Symphony, Prokofiev's Fifth and Honegger's Symphonie Lithurgique are all regarded as classics of the gramophone, unlikely to be bettered.

Carl Nielsen's Fourth Symphony was written in 1916, certainly within the shadow of war, although I don't think anyone would call it a particularly tragic symphony. On the contrary, as its nickname the "uudslukkelige " suggests - there is no literal translation of this Danish word, meaning "unquenchable life force", the closest being "inextinguishable" - it is a rather triumphant work. Surprisingly, it is still a comparative rarity in the concert hall and recording studio, even if it is probably Nielsen's best-known work.

By rights, this Inextinguishable should have joined the aforementioned exalted list of classic Karajan recordings; the fact that it doesn't quite, does not mean though that it is without its own considerable merits. For a start, the fabled Berlin Philharmonic of the time play with the blazing exultation of a new discovery and even if the sound provided for them by DG is slightly boxy and artificial, whether on compact disc, mp3, or even on FLAC download, it is still fit for purpose. Karajan, too, is on fine form, the opening being as trenchant and intense as any, the conductor building the tension inexorably towards that magnificent early climax which, when it arrives, is as glorious as you are likely to hear this side of the divide. The rest of the opening Allegro continues in similar vein, but the opening of the second movement Poco Allegretto demonstrates the reading's weakness: the Berlin orchestra's woodwind section is far too refined and polite, inhabiting the rarefied air of late Sibelius rather than the more rustic and pesante atmosphere of Nielsen's own soundworld. The start of Adagio has the Berlin strings showing all the power and intensity for which they were rightly famed at the time and Karajan builds this movement with an unerring eye for drama, culminating in a fine duel between the timpanists. Then, inexplicably, just as the percussion finish their battle and before the music is swept forward by the cellos and basses, there is a hiatus, barely a second, clearly an error from the production team maybe splicing together two takes, but it is there and it is a serious one, for it destroys the momentum which should blaze headlong into the final pages. In short, this Inextinguishable is, if only for a brief moment, extinguished.  All in all, a pity; it is so close to being a definitive rendition, but maybe because it was a unique performance (Karajan only recorded it the once and never took it into the concert hall) that in the last analysis it cannot be recommended before Blomstedt (Decca) or Grondahl (Dutton and Danacord).

On this issue, the rather ungenerous playing time of the symphony alone is supplemented by Sibelius's Tapiola, a bizarre bedfellow, the only connection between two works being that they are written by Scandinavian composers during the Twentieth Century. That said, whereas the Inextinguishable was a one-off for Karajan, the Tapiola was a major staple of his repertoire and this performance was his fourth and final recording of the work, captured in one of the finest digital recordings made for him in the Berlin Philharmonie. All of Karajan's recordings of Tapiola show an inspired sympathy with this music; indeed, Sibelius himself stated that Karajan was "the only one who truly understands my work" and at the head of this score, wrote:

Widespread they stand, the Northland's dusky forests,
Ancient, mysterious, brooding savage dreams;
Within them dwells the Forest's mighty God,
And wood-sprites in the gloom weave magic secrets.

On the final page of this performance, the Berlin violins play a chord, underpinned by lower strings, and the sound Karajan summons from them there is as other-worldly and mysterious as any magic conjured up by the ancient Nordic God, Tapio. This is a patient, brooding performance, which grips the listener by the throat from the opening bar and never lets up until the final note has died away after those astonishing final pages. The sheer concentration and intensity of the playing is extraordinary; it is, in my opinion, one of the very greatest interpretations of Tapiola and a timely reminder, also, of the greatness that was Karajan. It does not really matter whether it is on CD or download; this Tapiola is one of those recordings that should be in every reader’s collection.

Lee Denham

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