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Sibelius karajan 4860651
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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Karajan Sibelius - Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon
Christian Ferras (violin)
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); 24/48 Dolby Atmos
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 486 0651 CD/BDA [5 CDs: 271:12 & BD-A: 196:47]

Herbert von Karajan’s DG recordings of Sibelius with the Berlin Philharmonic rather passed me by when they first came out. My first LPs of the Sibelius symphonies were those recorded by Lorin Maazel with the Vienna Philharmonic – now sounding extremely handsome in the latest remastering (review). That was at a time, more than fifty years ago, when my priority was the acquisition of a broadly based collection, so I didn’t go in for multiple versions of the same works. Later, I also acquired Sir Colin Davis’s excellent Boston cycle – by no means entirely eclipsed by his subsequent LSO Live performances (review). Then I fell under the spell of the leaner Nordic approach of the likes of Osmo Vänskä (review ~ review) and Okko Kamu (review). What with those conductors, and others, guiding my exploration of the Finnish master’s symphonies it’s perhaps unsurprising – though still hard to justify – that I’ve missed Karajan in this repertory. Time to make amends, and the appearance of this set of remastered recordings, with most of the performances also included on a Blu-ray Audio disc, is the ideal opportunity. I came to the set with high hopes after so much admiring DG’s remastering of Karajan’s 1960s Beethoven cycle (review).

Karajan recorded the first two Sibelius symphonies, but for EMI rather than DG (review). As for the Third, he never recorded it and, indeed, I think I may be right in saying that he didn’t conduct it at all. So, with this DG collection we begin with the Fourth Symphony, which was recorded in 1965. It’s a very fine performance from start to finish but I was particularly impressed by Karajan’s traversal of the first and third movements. In the opening movement there’s great concentration and power in the music-making and the BPO’s playing is superb. There’s often been comment about the luxuriant sound that Karajan obtained from the orchestra, but here the sound, though very full when required, is tempered by a leanness which suits the music; sample the grainy sound of the strings at the very beginning, for example. If anything, one experiences even more concentration in the third movement. The marking is Il tempo largo and Karajan gives the music all the space it needs, but he always maintains focus, so the music never drags. This is potent music and a great atmosphere is generated by Karajan and his orchestra; the climaxes have a craggy grandeur. By contrast, there’s more lightness in the finale. Here, the conductor’s famed ear for detail is in evidence. The performance is dynamic and purposeful. The Fourth Symphony is a magnificent, highly original achievement and it’s done full justice by Karajan and the BPO.

On the same CD we find Karajan’s earlier recording of The Swan of Tuonela. The performance is very intense and it benefits from plangent cor anglais playing by Gerhard Stempnik. Some 19 years later the same player was on duty for the digital remake and his contribution was just as fine.

Karajan recorded the Fifth Symphony back in 1952 with the Philharmonia and, looking back, I see Terry Barfoot felt that the 1952 version had the edge over later Berlin traversals in some respects (review). I can’t comment because I haven’t heard that Philharmonia recording; nor have I heard the later 1976 version which Karajan made for EMI, though Christopher Howell was qualified in his praise (review). This 1965 DG account impressed me. The first movement is spacious in conception yet one always has the sense that the music is moving forward. Karajan takes great care over Sibelius’s textures – for example, the glacial, quiet strings that underpin the extended bassoon solo. DG place the last section of the movement (Allegro moderato - Presto) on a separate track, which is helpful. Here, Karajan is masterly as the music gradually gathers pace and the ending blazes excitingly. The finale combines energy and grandeur (the latter especially); I noted the noble contributions of the horn section. The concluding Largamente assai passage is majestic and imposing, crowning a terrific performance of the Fifth. On the CD we also have the first of the two performances of Tapiola. My colleagues and I listened to this 1964 recording a little while ago in the MusicWeb International Listening Studio. We chose it because all three of us wanted to hear this amazingly original masterpiece in the BD-A format but the performance divided opinion. Listening to it again on my home equipment, my positive view of the performance hasn’t changed. However, when I listened to the same work in Karajan’s 1984 digital remake, I thought this later traversal offered even more. The sound has more immediacy and impact – that may be due to the change in venue to the Philharmonie, or it may be down to the use of digital technology. But I think there’s more to it that the question of recorded sound: in 1984 the playing is even more intense and, for example, the storm episode is more vivid. Had we played the 1984 version in the Studio, I wonder if our verdict would have been closer to unanimity.

I learned from the booklet essay that the Sixth was the first Sibelius piece that Karajan conducted in public; that was way back in 1938. This DG recording was his second – there was an earlier Philharmonia version (EMI) and he would also re-record it for EMI in the 1970s. I was hooked right at the start: the eloquent string polyphony is spaciously delivered and sounds wonderful. Throughout the movement Karajan achieves great clarity of texture and every change in texture is made to count, as the composer intended. When the pace of the music picks up, I love the freshness and lightness that the BPO demonstrate in their playing. There’s great refinement in the second movement; that’s vital if Sibelius’s inspiration is to achieve its effect. In the Poco vivace third movement we hear virtuoso lightness throughout the orchestra. Knowing this conductor, I’m sure every aspect of this performance was scrupulously controlled but even so there’s a sense of spontaneous freshness. The finale, too, is very successful and I think Karajan’s reading of this elusive symphony is a conspicuous success.

The Seventh is a miracle of organic growth; it takes just over 23 minutes to play (in this performance) but Sibelius packs in so much and by the time the work finishes you feel nothing more needs to be said. Karajan does it very well indeed. There’s a sense of rightness and inevitability in the way the music unfolds and I was struck by the grandeur in the passages of slower music. The three passages led by the solo trombone – the player a commanding presence – are terrifically imposing. In the swifter episodes the BPO play with needle-point precision. Karajan seems to me to get all the tempo changes unerringly right. It’s a magisterial reading, superbly played.

The soloist in the Violin Concerto is the Frenchman, Christian Ferras (1933-1982). If memory serves me correctly, he worked with Karajan quite a lot. He plays with pure, gleaming tone and I liked his account of the concerto a lot. The performance also serves to remind us – if a reminder were needed – what a fine accompanist Karajan was. I greatly admired Ferras’s superb rendition of the first movement cadenza. Here, terrific articulation is married to command of the musical rhetoric. We hear a refined account of the slow movement while Ferras is in athletic form in the spirited finale. This CD also includes Valse triste and Finlandia. The latter isn’t my favourite Sibelius work but Karajan does most of it well. I say “most of” because there’s one detail I don’t like. After the opening Andante sostenuto – very imposing here – the short Allegro moderato is too slow for my taste: the music seems to hang fire. However, when Karajan gets to the main Allegro the performance is as dashing as you could wish and the famous Big Tune, when it arrives, is predictably sonorous with this great orchestra to deliver it. The 1984 re-make is very similar except that the Allegro is even quicker and more exciting.

The fifth CD offers us digital remakes of four of the shorter works, all set down in 1984. There’s also a 1982 digital recording of the Suite from the incidental music to Pelléas et Mélisande. I must admit I’m somewhat equivocal about the performance of the suite. The opening ‘At the Castle Gate’ is marked Grave e largamente and Karajan’s performance lives up to that tempo marking. The music is taken very broadly indeed and you may feel, as I do, that it’s too drawn out, though there’s no denying the impressive sonority of the BPO. ‘Mélisande’ follows and Karajan leads a beautifully poised rendition of the piece. I wonder if the distinguished cor anglais playing is again the work of Gerhard Stempnik; I suspect that’s the case and this is one of several super examples of his playing in the suite. In ‘A Spring in the Park’ I have to say that I think the music needs a lighter touch than it receives here, but on the other hand ‘Pastorale’ is charming; it features delectable woodwind contributions. The last of the eight movements is ‘Mélisande’s Death’. The sorrowful yet dignified nature of the music comes across very well; the playing has great eloquence and the hushed conclusion is particularly affecting.

I should say a word about the sound quality. I listened to some of the 1960s recordings as CDs and some of them using the BD-A disc. Truth to tell, I can’t report a huge amount of difference between the CD and BD-A results: both are excellent. I listened to some works, including the Fifth and the Seventh symphonies, as well as the Violin Concerto, using the BD-A disc, while the Sixth Symphony was played on the CD. With the Fourth I set both the CD and the BD-A discs going simultaneously and switched between the two, getting excellent results from both media, though with slightly better definition from the BD-A. On the other hand, the CD gave me a warmer sound. I’m delighted that DG have offered the BD-A option but the CD remastering has been extremely successful; so, if you’re restricted to that medium, I don’t think you should be too concerned.

With the recordings from the 1980s, I had no choice since DG didn’t include them on the BD-A disc, which is slightly puzzling. I noted greater presence and definition when comparing the 1980s recordings with those of the same works which Karajan had set down in the 1960s. This may be due to digital technology or it may be that the Philharmonie, the venue for those later recordings, has a more immediate acoustic than that of the Jesus-Christus-Kirche, where all the earlier recordings were made. Perhaps it’s a combination of both factors. Incidentally, though several producers were involved in these recordings, every single one of them was made by the same balance engineer, Günter Hermanns. It was Hermanns who was also the Tonmeister for Karajan’s 1960s Beethoven symphony cycle. You can tell from the fifth CD that Hermanns was able to achieve even better results in the early 1980s working with digital technology in the Philharmonie. However, the 1960s Sibelius recordings demonstrate that his analogue recordings, made in the Jesus-Christus-Kirche, were very fine indeed and more than fifty years later they sound extremely handsome in these re-masterings.

As I said at the outset, it’s taken me a long time to catch up with these recordings, but I’m very glad that I have, especially in such excellent sound. Herbert von Karajan was a notable interpreter of the Finnish master and these recordings will make a distinguished addition to any Sibelius collection.

John Quinn

Previous review: Chris Salocks (Recording of the Month)

CD1 [43:53]
Symphony No 4 in A minor, Op. 63 (1910-11) [36:08]
The Swan of Tuonela, Op. 22 No. 2 (1895-1900)* [7:45]
 Gerhard Stempnik (cor anglais)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
rec. February 26-27 and May 12, 1965 (Symphony); September 18-21, 1965 (Swan of Tuonela); Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin, Germany.

CD2 [51:46]
Symphony No 5 in E-flat major, Op. 82 (1915-19) [31:34]
Tapiola, Op. 112 (1926) [20:12]
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
rec. February 22-24, 1965 (Symphony); October 30, 1964 (Tapiola); Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin, Germany.

CD3 [52:12]
Symphony No. 6 in D minor, Op. 104 (1923) [28:49]
Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 105 (1924) [23:23]
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
rec. April 18, 1967 (Symphony No. 6); September 20-21, 1967 (Symphony No. 7); Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin, Germany.

CD4 [48:56]
Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47 (1903-1905)* [33:15]
Finlandia, Op. 26 (1899-1900) [9:28]
Valse triste, Op. 44 No. 1 (1903) [6:13]
* Christian Ferras (violin)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
rec. October 28-30, 1964 (Concerto, Finlandia); January 30, 1967 (Valse triste); Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin, Germany.

CD5 [74:25]
Finlandia, Op. 26 (1899-1900) [9:23]
The Swan of Tuonela, Op. 22 No. 2 (1895-1900)* [7:50]
Valse triste, Op. 44 No. 1 (1903) [5:59]
Tapiola, Op. 112 (1926) [20:13]
Pelléas et Mélisande (Suite from the Incidental Music), Op. 46 (1905) [32:00]
* Gerhard Stempnik (cor anglais)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
rec. February 19-24, 1984 (Finlandia, Swan of Tuonela, Valse triste, Tapiola); February 1982 (Pelléas et Mélisande); Philharmonie, Berlin, 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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