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Dip Your Ears: No. 264 (A Sibelius-Classic Revisited)

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J.Sibelius, Symphony No.4-7++
H.v.Karajan / Berlin Phil

Karajan’s Sibelius is – rightly – uncontroversial, simply because it’s pretty darn good and often better than just that. Still, he would probably not be mentioned among the first five, or even ten names, when talking great Sibelius conductors today. Probably because he never conducted a complete cycle, having eschewed the Third entirely and the First all but once. I can’t deny that I, too, haven’t thought of Karajan as my go-to Sibelius choice in a while, having comfortably settled on a few other favorites. But on re-listening to his recording of the Fourth Symphony for Deutsche Grammophon with the Berlin Philharmonic (1965), the force of this ironfisted interpretation was borne on my mind again. The sound is absolute reference class, has depth and transparency to deliver every nuance as well as every bit of oomph. The playing is deadly precise but not wall-of-sound homogenous. The music darkly glides along in all its abstract sparseness… daubed unto the musical canvas like a monochrome Seurat at moonlight. It’s a gripping experience that sounds better than memory would have suggested. In fact, so good was the impression that a comparison was in order – more or less at random. The choice fell to Berglund and his Helsinki recording for EMI. What a difference! Almost – as the cliché would have it – as if it weren’t the same work.

With Berglund, everything is lighter, gayer in comparison. He makes the music sound like the soundtrack to a Czech animated feature film about trolls and forest animals. Berglund is nice enough in each moment… and impressive when the symphony finally reaches a more conventional climax. But nothing among the niceties inexorably leads to the next moment. Nothing is woven together with the single-minded or organic determination as it is with Karajan. The latter, as the scientific phrase goes, grabs you by the lapels – the others don’t. And man, is Karajan’s version dark. There’s always a bit of “Ring Cycle without Strings” to the Fourth, but the way Wagner and Bruckner shine through in Karajan’s pristinely controlled and thereby ultimately impassioned performance is notable. I don’t mean to suggest that Karajan is bending Sibelius away from the Finn’s essence towards composers he is more familiar with or changed the character of Sibelius’ music (as might be argued to have happened with early Colin Davis, who gave Sibelius the across-the-board accessibility of a Richard Strauss tone poem). But even if he did, it’s to such tremendous, Sibelius-enhancing effect, that I couldn’t possibly object. Another Sibelius-favorite, Kurt Sanderling (Berlin Classics), also doesn’t come close to the intensity of the Karajan reading; the music – admittedly the trickiest of Sibelius masterpieces to get one’s ears around – sounds too incidental or distracted. Just about everyone can make Sibelius’ Fifth sound as if carved out of one block… Karajan does that with the Fourth! And all to tremendous effect. Listen to it! It is a unique Sibelian experience and more than deserves to retain the classic status that it long held.

The recording is part of the DG Originals Twofer of Karajan’s Sibelius for that label, part of the spotty-yet-interesting Sibelius Edition box, and on the Kamu/Karajan Berlin Philharmonic cycle on a budget TRIO set.


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