Jeremy Lee writes
The recordings featured here are Karajan’s last Sibelius recordings, recorded from 1976 to 1981. Compared to his earlier recordings, be it with the Philharmonia for EMI in the 1950s, or the late 1960s/early 1970s for DG, this set arguably represents Karajan’s Sibelius interpretation at its tried-and-true best.
The best performance in this set is that of the Fifth, a truly exciting and intense performance that holds the listener’s attention from the first bar to the last. Gone is the homogeneous, glossy blend of the DG performance; here, the plush, string-heavy sound is replaced by a predominantly brassy canvas (to the extent that the strings nearly get swamped at times), resulting in a much rougher sound. Check out the broadening coda of the Finale: through the pealing trumpets and the blaring trombones, the usually grandiose and dignified passage is instantly transformed into a gigantic, almost overwhelming wall of sound. Here, at last, Celibidache’s searingly intense 1992 radio broadcast performance with the Munich Philharmonic meets its less drawn-out yet similarly momentous brother.
The other performances also fare very well: the Fourth, while lacking the sheer brutality of Maazel’s performance, impresses with its depth and weight; the First, a work Karajan never recorded before this, is similarly competitive, and I find the Sixth, a refreshing and thrilling performance for sure, a true delight. The Second would be a pretty impressive performance too hadn’t it been for the Finale which drags on interminably, and would probably be less of a problem hadn’t it been for Karajan’s seeming inability to maintain the tension throughout the movement.
Disc 4 is devoted to some tone poems, and overall it is a mixed bag. Finlandia, The Swan of Tuolena and the Karelia Suite are beautifully played and well paced, but the sagging Valse Triste is devoid of any charm, and Tapiola is a relatively tame performance in comparison to many other versions, chief of which is Hans Rosbaud’s also with the Berlin Philharmonic (they also perform the best Valse Triste in my opinion, one that has melancholy as well as true lilt and character)–but that’s another review.
The other caveat is the recorded sound, which is terribly congested in the climaxes, when not loaded with distortion. Besides, Karajan surpassed himself in the Second when he was younger, in his Philharmonia recording for EMI, which roundly beats this Berlin rendition for a more cohesive interpretation as well as much better recorded sound; the Philharmonia Fifth, coupled with that Second, also benefits from better sonics, and though the interpretation is less intense than the Berlin version it bears its own virtues of elegance and poise. Despite these shortcomings this inexpensive 4CD set, newly remastered for Warner’s Official Karajan Remastered Edition, is a powerful reminder of Karajan’s status as a great Sibelius conductor besides his unofficial fame as one of the doyens of the Austro-Germanic repertoire.
- Album name: Karajan conducts Sibelius 1976-1981
- Performers: Herbert von Karajan (conductor); Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
- Label: Warner Classics 0825646336197
- Sonics: Stereo ADD/DDD
- Total playing time: 4:24:43