Karajan's penchant for Sibelius' unique symphonies was one of the finest
characteristics of this often criticized conductor and these magnificent
Philharmonia testimonials are a shining light in the history of Sibelius
landmarks. It was obvious that by now, Karajan and Legge had turned the
Philharmonia into a top-quality ensemble, one that was able to respond to
every subtle nuance and dynamic shaping with alacrity and aplomb. This warm
Kingsway Hall rendering of the Second is to my mind superior to the more
famous Berlin account of sixteen years later.
There is a certain craggy grandeur about the opening movement and those glorious
Philharmonia strings have that unique sense of character which is so essential
to the brooding sweeps of the music. The First movement is on the slow side,
but it never falters although one may notice that Karajan is occasionally
wayward in his over-romantic treatment of the fragmentary themes. There is
a cold, brooding almost 'Tuonela' like atmosphere in the Second movement
and those fabled strings are quite Nordic in their corporate intensity.
Karajan whips everything up for the Third movement, the staccatos at the
beginning of the piece are hammered out with vintage Philharmonia force.
Then there is the transition to the Finale which is so superbly handled that
you wouldn't even notice that they are two separate movements. The sense
of heroic endeavor is impressive, although Anthony Collins' legendary Decca
account is even more exciting. The lumbering tempo for the coda is impressive
and the final bars are majestic and exemplary in their orific grandeur. An
emotionally draining experience.
Karajan had already recorded a superb mono Fifth with the Philharmonia in
1953 and this stereo remake suffers from some indifferent playing, although
critics have favoured this version to his later 1976 BPO account for structural
integrity. The mystery of the First movement is an exercise in discipline
although the conductor lingers over some selected key passages, robbing the
natural flow of this wonderful music. Comparing this vintage Philharmonia
to Rattle's superb 1982 account with the same orchestra was instructive but
you cannot fail to have gremlins in that magnificent Second movement, an
incredible tone-poem of stately and majestic beauty.
Karajan was always at his best in his recordings of the Fifth and this Finale
is no exception. It has the orchestra bounding over glaciers and fjords with
assured mastery and a sense of tranquil soliloquy, and when we reach the
top of the mountain, the hammer blows are swift and enthralling, a glorious
end to a majestic pillar of artistry. I fail to understand EMI's shabby treatment
of the booklet, a short synopsis by Richard Osborne and sketchy descriptions
of the works are all that are included. But that does not detract from the
excitement and individuality of the enterprise and it is definitely one of
the finest Sibelius issues of all time.