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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Karajan Sibelius - Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon
Gerhard Stempnik (English horn)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
rec. 1964-1967 and 1982-1984. ADD/DDD
“Pure Audio” Blu-ray Disc:
Contains the contents of CDs 1-4 in the following formats:
24/192 Stereo
24/96 Multi-channel (5.1) - as reviewed
24/48 Dolby Atmos
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 486 0651 CD/BDA [5 CDs: 271:12 & BD-A: 196:47]

What else can one say about this celebrated set of recordings? They’ve been staples of the Deutsche Grammophon catalog ever since they were released in the 60’s, and I’ve owned many (but not all) of their various incarnations, including the original vinyl issues and DG’s “The Originals” album on CD. However, as with the latest reissue of Karajan’s 70’s DG set of Beethoven Symphonies, the interest in this latest Sibelius set reissue may rest in how well DG’s Tonmeister have remastered the original recordings not only to take advantage of the higher resolution, which is more and more par for the course of digital formats these days, but also to bring these recordings into the world of three-dimensional objects made possible by such technologies as Dolby Atmos. Unfortunately, although my preamp/processor supports 3D object formats, I have not quite completed my own Dolby Atmos set-up in my listening room, so my comments on that version must remain provisional at this point. (I have the front height speakers and amp, but not the rear height speakers and amp.)

I’ve already read some skepticism on a couple of sites to the effect that DG is using such things as artificial reverberation to enlarge the stereo sound beyond its original stereo confines. This seems like complete speculation to me. And there’s already even a video review of this set on YouTube where the presenter takes some more than passing sideswipes at the efforts of various companies (like DG) to present their recordings to listeners in the very best resolution possible, encompassing as realistic an audio experience as possible.

Frankly, I’m amazed by this attitude. Here we have a great conductor like Karajan, who has precisely tailored his interpretations of these works to the specific acoustic conditions in which he worked. Wouldn’t a listener want to hear even the tiniest nuances of this great orchestra’s playing, which both conductor and orchestra worked so hard to achieve? Speaking for myself, I’m very grateful that DG is putting in a comparable effort to let us hear everything which the original tapes can possibly reveal, and I sometimes feel that there’s more than a little envy underlying an attitude like that of the YouTube presenter when he complains about DG’s (and other companies’) forays into higher resolution formats. Who knows – maybe his inability to hear the difference would account for such a sour grapes attitude.

I do not know what DG’s microphone set-ups have been over their history, or whether there is any artificial enhancement (reverb or otherwise) on these new remasterings. However, the proof of the pudding is in the listening, and I can say for a fact that these recordings have never sounded better. I spent most of my listening time experiencing to the 5.1 incarnations on the blu-ray disc. As with the 70’s Beethoven Symphony set, the DG Tonmeister have once again achieved something truly outstanding. Most of the tracks were recorded in the Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin, which imparts a warm, welcome glow to the playing. I know that some listeners prefer the drier sound of the Philharmonie, because they feel that there’s too much indirect, reverberant sound in the Jesus-Christus-Kirche which interferes with the direct sound. But this is not a problem at all in the 5.1 incarnation, because most of the reverb comes from behind you, and, if the indirect sound is too much, you can simply adjust the balance between your surround speakers and your front speakers. Indeed, I was almost overcome by the sheer realism of the sound - I felt that this was the closest I’ve ever been to the heart of these performances.

An exception, of course, is the stereo-only CD5, which was recorded in the Philharmonie near the beginning of the digital era, and it wouldn’t have done any good to take its 16/44.1 original resolution and merely put it into a higher rez container. You would gain nothing. And I applaud DG for resisting what was, no doubt, the temptation to do just that. In any case, after the glorious experiences of listening to the 5.1 tracks of CDs 1-4, it was a bit of a letdown to return back to regular stereo and the (to me) less friendly acoustics of the Philharmonie. Sure, the recordings on CD5 are excellent as far as they go, and they even capture the tympani a bit better too. I probably wouldn’t complain if I heard them in isolation – but after the wonders of the 5.1 tracks, I guess I was just bound to be disappointed going back to regular stereo.

In general, as I listened to what I might almost call these “friends from recorded history”, I began to recall how appropriately some of the earlier reviews of these performances (over the last decades) set our listening expectations. For instance, in the stark Fourth Symphony, the word, “granitic”, sears itself into our consciousness in Karajan’s uncompromising interpretation. I’m usually skeptical of these kinds of poetic adjectives in describing a musical performance, but surely it seems apt here. If you want a more technical description of the music making, you could perhaps say that the orchestra seems to be of one mind with its conductor, putting its considerable (and unique!) tonal resources into the almost life and death symphonic argument. (Sibelius was suffering from throat cancer when he wrote this work.) I also note with approval that Karajan uses the Glockenspiel in the fourth movement rather than the unfortunate alternative of tubular chimes — a tone color which prematurely bogs the music down — employed by some other conductors who should know better.

Expansiveness is the word for the opening movement of the Karajan/BPO Fifth Symphony, where the conductor’s 14:12 timing rivals those of such conductors as Barbirolli and Sanderling. In the subsequent two movements, Karajan is comparatively less broad, but still manages to convey the composer’s large symphonic gestures without sounding at all rushed. As Thomas Wozonig’s booklet notes remind us, this particular performance was among the favorite recordings of Glenn Gould.

In the Sixth Symphony, the performance conveys the opening polyphony (of which I spoke earlier) with a flexible intensity which, as Wozonig rightly notes, is a far cry from the more rigid (or, if you like, more taut) approach of Beecham. Most of Karajan’s tempos here are remarkably consistent with his earlier recording of the work on EMI with the Philharmonia Orchestra, except for the second movement, which benefits from an additional minute of playing time, adding to the sense of spaciousness.

Karajan’s performance of the single-movement Seventh Symphony is every bit as wide ranging and multi-faceted as this great work deserves. The string playing throughout has the kind of lushness usually associated with Stokowski’s and Ormandy’s Philadelphia Orchestra, and all of that tonal weight is put into full and effective force at the symphonies final climax – wonderful! Once you get used to a string section with the seemingly infinite tonal reserves of the 1960’s BPO in this performance, it’s hard to settle for less.

We get two different performances of Tapiola, almost a symphony in everything but name, which are remarkably consistent in their timings (20:12 vs. 20:13). I prefer the earlier performance from the Jesus-Christus-Kirche for its incredible front to back depth — what an expansion of that dimension with this new multi-channel remastering. As I mentioned, the timpani are caught slightly better in the later (Berlin Philharmonie) recording — I’d guess because of closer spot microphoning — and there’s a very slight increase in clarity in the later version, which to my ears sounds a little less natural. Regardless, both performances are pretty overwhelming in their power, and they reveal the work for the masterpiece that it is.

The incidental music to Maeterlinck’s Pelléas et Melisande originally shared a vinyl album with Grieg’s two suites of his Peer Gynt incidental music, but are included to complete Karajan’s DG Sibelius recordings in this set. The nine sections culminate in “Melisande’s Death”, surely one of the most deeply tragic sounding short works ever composed. Once again, Karajan takes each of these sections with the utmost seriousness, and the playing is once again not only outstanding but also easily identifiable as the distinctive work of the BPO, with its unique sonority (a uniqueness which, after Karajan’s tenure, has steadily diminished over time).

Karajan’s collaboration with Christian Ferras in the Sibelius Violin Concerto has also been long celebrated. In comparison with most other versions I know of, starting with the Heifetz recordings, Ferras sounds virtuosic yet self-effacing (in the sense of stepping back from the limelight when the score indications demand it), a combination of qualities prized by many collectors. I wouldn’t quite put it into the very top group of recordings of this work, however, and I admit to preferring performances wherein the virtuosity is even more overt, such as Mullova and Ozawa (Brr! That one is cold!), Batiashvili (the one with Oramo — I haven’t heard the newer one with Barenboim), or, indeed, Heifetz (with Hendl - which I prefer for the sound quality). However, this Ferras/Karajan performance now has the unlikely advantage over Mullova and Batiashvili in that, despite its origin from the mid-60’s, it’s available in multi-channel sound. Amazing! (I should mention that the extremely fine Suwanai/Oramo Philips recording was also available in multi-channel in its SACD issue, but I think that this version may be hard to obtain now. In addition, Chandos offers the performance by Jennifer Pike and Andrew Davis in multi-channel, another very fine rendition, especially from the soloist.) There is, of course, a huge number of magnificent performances of this work aside from the ones I’ve just mentioned.

As for the shorter duration works, there are also two different recordings of Valse triste (6:13 and 5:59 respectively), and, once again, few other conductors take this work as seriously, or indeed as gravely, as Karajan does. It was surely a genius move on the part of Italian director Bruno Bozzetto to use Karajan’s recording (the earlier one) in his 1976 film, “Allegro non troppo”, for an episode depicting a hapless cat remembering happier times with his family after the members have fled from their bombed-out dwelling place or perhaps have even died. In any case, these Karajan Valse triste performances somehow have the elements of real tragedy about them, whereas a number of other performances of this work have a mere “classical pops” aura about them.

In addition to the two performances of Finlandia, there are also two different performances of The Swan of Tuonela (1965 and 1984 respectively – again, remarkably consistent in their timing, at 7:45 and 7:50). In both performances, the English horn solos are played wonderfully by Gerhard Stempnik, and I don’t know which is more remarkable: the understanding and maturity of the younger man’s playing, or the freshness and facility of the older man’s playing! Both performances have all these qualities, and Karajan and the orchestra generate real depth and consequence in the music.

I’ve mentioned some alternative performances in the discussion of some of these works, but most of the likely purchasers of this set will know what they’re getting. And although there are indeed valid alternatives to every one of the performances here, many listeners (and I include myself among them) will contend that there are no finer performances of this repertoire. Karajan and the BPO later re-recorded much of this same repertoire for EMI – and I’ve owned those performances too. But right now, with what I’m tempted to call this state-of-the-art remastering (so well done that it actually sounds like a completely modern recording!), this is the set to go for if you want to hear what Karajan and the BPO could accomplish with Sibelius.

Chris Salocks

Symphony No 4 in A minor, Op. 63 (1910-11), The Swan of Tuonela, Op. 22 No. 2 (1895-1900)*
Gerhard Stempnik, English horn
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
rec. February 26-27 and May 12, 1965 (Symphony); September 18-21, 1965 (Swan of Tuonela); Berlin, Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Germany.

Symphony No 5 in E-flat major, Op. 82 (1915-19), Tapiola, Op. 112 (1926)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
rec. February 22-24, 1965 (Symphony); October 30, 1964 (Tapiola); Berlin, Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Germany.

Symphony No. 6 in D minor, Op. 104 (1923), Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 105 (1924)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
rec. April 18, 1967 (Symphony No. 6); September 20-21, 1967 (Symphony No. 7); Berlin, Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Germany.

Concerto in D minor for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 47 (1903-1905)*, Finlandia, Op. 26 (1899-1900), Valse triste, Op. 44 No. 1 (1903)
* Christian Ferras, violin; Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
rec. October 28-30, 1964 (Concerto, Finlandia); January 30, 1967 (Valse triste); Berlin, Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Germany.

Finlandia, Op. 26 (1899-1900), The Swan of Tuonela, Op. 22 No. 2 (1895-1900)*, Valse triste, Op. 44 No. 1 (1903), Tapiola, Op. 112 (1926), Pelléas et Mélisande (Suite from the Incidental Music), Op. 46 (1905)
* Gerhard Stempnik, English horn

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
rec. February 19-24, 1984 (Finlandia, Swan of Tuonela, Valse triste, Tapiola); February 1982 (Pelléas et Mélisande); Berlin, Philharmonie, Germany.

“Pure Audio” Blu-ray Disc
Contains the contents of CDs 1-4 in the following formats:
24/192 Stereo
24/96 Multi-channel (5.1)
24/48 Dolby Atmos

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