Top Ear

Rosbaud/Berlin’s Fantastic Non-Symphonic Sibelius

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Jeremy Lee writes

If you are a newcomer to Sibelius’ music beyond his seven symphonies, look no further than this disc, without doubt the most exciting, direct and idiomatic non-symphonic Sibelius ever recorded.  Hans Rosbaud, along with Herr von Karajan, was one of the greatest German exponents of Sibelius’ music in the post-war years, and both saw great drama and intensity in Sibelius, but the similarities end there.  While Karajan applied his characteristic super-polish to the music, beefing up its unique sonorities (“vertical” Sibelius, as it were), Rosbaud strived to be terse and direct, conveying that drama and intensity through strong structural alacrity and linearity without sacrificing heat-of-the-moment spontaneity and excitement (“horizontal” Sibelius).  Thus, while Karajan’s Sibelius often sounded pre-fabricated, Rosbaud’s seem to be composed at the spur of the moment, before your very eyes (ears).

All of the works in this Originals disc attest to this fact, nowhere more so in the legendary Tapiola which has often been touted as one of the most hair-raisingly intense accounts ever, and particularly in the exceptionally light-footed and high-spirited Karelia-Suite–my favorite recording of all those that I have heard.  But I think the best thing here is the Valse Triste.  While most other conductors, not least Karajan, wear it down with lead boots, Rosbaud offers us a true waltz-tempo (like van Beinum) while coaxing the most chillingly beautiful phrasings and sonorities from the strings, without diminishing the music’s haunting melancholy.  What I particularly enjoy is Rosbaud’s immaculate sense of timing, tempo relationships and rubato, coupled with his inerrant structural grasp, makes the wild tempo changes sound as if it were the logical continuation of the preceding tempo, rather than tacked on.  And yet at around the 3 minute mark he really does let loose, giving us playing of such wild abandon that the music suddenly added a new dimension, resembling the frenetic, drunken waltz sections in the second movement of Mahler’s Ninth.

The other pieces are all so spectacularly done that I won’t bother to describe them in great detail.  What’s more important is that the pre-Karajanized Berlin Philharmonic offer playing with infinitely more technical assurance, clarity of texture and richness of character than the post-Karajanized orchestra ever did, at least in Sibelius.  Compare any of Rosbaud’s Sibelius with Karajan’s and you will immediately hear the difference between the perfect instrumental balance, and the obtuse, string-smothered instrumental balance.  The mono sonics (the selections were recorded in 1954 and 1957) are so good they’re comparable with the better early stereo recordings by Decca, and DG has done a great job in remastering and reissuing these invaluable performances.  If you were to allow yourself only one disc in this 150th Sibelius Anniversary, this is undoubtedly it.


  • Album name:  Sibelius:  Finlandia;  Karelia-Suite;  Tapiola;  Valse triste;  Der Schwan von Tuonela;  Festivo
  • Performers:  Hans Rosbaud (conductor);  Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
  • Label:  DG Originals 447 453-2
  • Sonics:  Mono ADD
  • Total playing time:  61:50

Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

One thought on “Rosbaud/Berlin’s Fantastic Non-Symphonic Sibelius

  1. One of the worst recordings and performances of Sibelius ever. Not recommended. Lame readings and horrible sound.

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