Album review: Another look at Karajan’s DG Sibelius with the Berlin Philharmonic

In the course of the sixties and early eighties, Herbert von Karajan recorded most of his Sibelius repertoire for Deutsche Grammophon with the Berlin Philharmonic. These recordings convey an impressive thirty-year span of the composer’s orchestral music, encompassing four of the seven symphonies, the Violin Concerto, two forays into Sibelius’s theatre music, as well as a selection of tone poems, given in two iterations, analogue and digital. 

By the time Karajan and the orchestra had their first Sibelius sessions at their beloved recording venue, the Jesus-Christus-Kirche at Berlin-Dahlem, in 1964, the conductor had been involved in performing the composer’s music for more than 25 years. By the mid-fifties, Karajan had already recorded a substantial Sibelius catalogue for EMI with the Philharmonia. The octogenarian composer’s response to Karajan’s forays into the repertoire was notably enthusiastic; for Sibelius, the Austrian conductor was ”the one who best understands my music.”

While it is ever so important not to lift this type of commentary too much out of its initial context, the composer’s verdict nevertheless carries some special weight. Although Karajan’s Sibelius readings went through substantial transformations over the decades, there are notable continuities among all his recorded forays as well. 

In many ways, the sixties DG recordings provide us with the most solid disc presentation of Karajan’s vision, both in terms of his achievements and shortcomings. While the DG discography has been out and about in numerous guises over the years, the latest Yellow Label collection is the first release to cover Karajan’s Sibelius recordings in their entirety within a single release. Alongside five CDs in original jacket slipcovers, there is a Blu-ray audio disc as well, containing the original analogue recordings in various hi-res audio formats, including a 24 bit / 192 kHz stereo rendition and a Dolby Atmos remix. 

The five CDs retain their original LP track-listings, a preferred practice saluting the initial album design. However, for practical reasons, discs four and five contain some bonus tracks. No original liner notes are given, but there is a fine new essay by Thomas Wozonig contained in the booklet, alongside the usual recording data and some nice session photography. 

Karajan’s DG symphony cycle dispenses with the earlier symphonies. He never conducted the Third Symphony (1906-07), which received its Berlin Philharmonic premiere only in 2010 under Sir Simon Rattle, who also conducted the orchestra’s first recording of the piece in 2015. Karajan had recorded the Second Symphony (1901-02/1903) during his Philharmonia years, but his only Berlin remake was done as a part of the EMI cycle from 1976 to 1981. Like the digital recording of the First Symphony (1898-99/1900) in that set, Karajan’s Berlin Second is not a particularly memorable one. 

Thus, the DG set opens with perhaps the finest Sibelius coupling Karajan ever recorded, a 1965 pairing of a terrific reading Symphony No. 4 in A minor, Op. 63 (1910-11) and a gorgeously atmospheric account of The Swan of Tuonela, Op. 22, No. 2 (1895/1897/1939). Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony is, without question, one of the most unique forays to the genre ever conceived. Cast in four dark-hued movements, all clad in candle-lit, transparent orchestral textures, flickering at the very threshold of sonic dusk, the score is rooted in orchestral chamber music at its finest. 

To paraphrase Simon Rattle, the opening movement comes off as Parsifal condensed into a gripping, ten-minute orchestral narrative. The second movement inhabits a musical universe akin to that of Claude Debussy, whereas the ensuing Il tempo largo harks back to Sibelius’s Brucknerian roots. The ominous finale, and especially its devastating coda bear family resemblance with Anton Webern, as the music is broken down into fragments dispersed in time and space, somewhat in the manner of the conclusion of the Stürmisch bewegt movement from Gustav Mahler’s Fifth Symphony (1902-03). 

Although fifty six years have passed since the symphony was recorded by Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic, their astounding reading is still to be counted among the finest ones in the discography. The orchestra provides wonderfully Sibelian sonorities throughout the symphonic design, well served by Karajan’s apt tempi and fine-tuned balancing. True to Sibelius’s vision, Karajan shuns away from any overstatement of the musical material, as the orchestral fabric is captivatingly unveiled by the orchestra.

In similar vein, The Swan of Tuonela is given a spellbinding account, with Gerhadt Stempnik’s marvellous take on the riveting cor anglais solo. Karajan’s extraordinary pacing, rooted in tempi swifter than on most recordings, sits well with the music, which gains little from lingering. Sibelius’s orchestration dispenses with flutes, clarinets and trumpets, giving rise to some strikingly brooding sonorities, wholeheartedly embraced by the members of the Berlin Philharmonic. 

The second disc is much more uneven affair. The concluding Tapiola, Op. 112 (1926) from October 1964 is simply superlative, whereas the February 1965 performance of the main piece, Symphony No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 82 (1914-15/1916/1919) is far more problematic. The most popular of Sibelius’s late symphonies, the Fifth had a prolonged genesis. Its first version, premiered as a part of the composer’s fiftieth birthday concert in Helsinki in 1915, was conceived in four movements, with an overall deign somewhat akin to that of the Fourth. 

In the course of the following years, Sibelius thoroughly revised the score twice, with an intermediate version appearing in 1916 and the final version in 1919. In its completed form, the symphony is in three movements. The music sets off with a fabulously organic synthesis of an opening allegro and a scherzo, now bridged together with a splendid orchestral high-point. The entire movement constitutes a gradual accelerando, calling forth some extraordinary sensitivity to tempo relationships. 

The andante mosso, quasi allegretto second movement is rooted in invigoratingly Haydnesque lightness, although there are darker undercurrents at play as well. The finale is a thrilling proto-minimalistic tableau, with its rousing orchestral textures breaking into new territories of symphonic expression. 

While the 1965 performance by Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic is not without merit, there is some astonishing playing and uplifting symphonic designs, the tempi are notably slow, especially in the first movement, resulting in a lack of impetus and excitement. The opening movement is, in fact, quite bland, as there is simply not enough contrast within the unraveling orchestral fabric. 

The second and third movements fare much better, though. The andante is thoroughly enjoyable and well proportioned, and the mounting tensions in the finale are quite electrifyingly conveyed, for the most part. As with all the performances of the era relying on printed editions, without the oral tradition of corrections from the composer and his seasoned performers, some notable misprints find their way to the sounding reality form Karajan and the orchestra.   

Still, as recalled in the liner notes, the performance has had many notable advocates over the years, including Glenn Gould, who famously counted the recording among his desert island discs.  

In any case, Tapiola is the absolute gem of the second album. Commissioned and premiered by Walter Damrosch, the 1926 score became Sibelius’s unintended farewell for the orchestra. Scored for triple winds, with cor anglais, bass clarinet and double bassoon included, four horns, triple brass, timpani and strings, the music is conceived as a tone poem in the manner of a one-movement symphony. 

The title refers to the realm of Tapio, the sylvan deity in the Finnish mythology. The entire eighteen-to-twenty-minute score is derived from its opening material, presented on the first couple of pages. The music is both vast and extremely concentrated, as Sibelius crafts a dazzling symphonic entity out of its kernels. There is no programme, at least in a traditional sense, but rather a series of vivid, all-encompassing sonic impressions, emerging from the orchestral manifestation of the forest, both as a physical and a metaphysical entity. 

With Karajan on the podium the Berlin Philharmonic conveys a tremendous reading of Sibelius’s score, fusing together the monumental and the dramatic and giving rise to a series of enthralling orchestral vistas. Clocking at twenty minutes, the performance is notably slower than most accounts of the Finnish performance tradition, but this time the spacious reading actually provides the music with extra punch and depth, especially when clad in such wondrous orchestral colours. 

The third album, originally released in 1968, presents us with the two last symphonies. Having conducted the German premiere of the Symphony No. 6 in D minor, Op. 104 (1918-23) with the orchestra thirty years earlier, Karajan had a firm grasp of its unusual architecture. Although cast in the usual four movements, the symphony is one of the most personal works Sibelius ever penned. The outer movements, allegro molto moderato and allegro molto frame two quite peculiar inner ones, a spell-like allegretto moderato and a brief, steadfast scherzo, marked poco vivace.   

Scored for a classical orchestra with bass clarinet and harp added, the twenty-nine-minute symphony bears special pastoral hue, woven into its modal harmonic layers. On the DG disc, Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic give it the most inspired outing, one that still stands out in its energetic commitment and sincere beauty. A performance of symphonic cloudscape with rays on sunlight piercing its shadows here and there, there is a huge textural scope conveyed within the performance, from absolute stillness to whirl-winding orchestral storms. 

The album’s B-side, Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 105 (1918-24), is again more problematic a performance. The apex of Sibelius’s symphonic output, the one-movement synthesis contains the composer’s most adventurous takes on form and texture. In his score, Sibelius goes way beyond distinct movements played attacca and presents us with a thoroughly organic, twenty-four-minute symphonic entity, which contains all the basic ingredients of the genre, but reinvented and distilled into hitherto unforeseen gestures in sound.

In addition, the concepts of melody and accompaniment are thrown upside-down, as the Sibelius ventures into the realm of sonic fields, where the orchestral fabric is built from threads, woven together into ever-transforming instrumental layers. 

The symphony’s conclusion is also quite unlike anything in the repertoire. The music builds up to an earth-moving orchestral yawp, followed by a wistful coda, where a Valse triste allusion paves the way for the final C major chord, peculiarity divided between a brass diminuendo and a string crescendo, to a stunning effect.    

Again, not uncommonly for the conductors of the era, Karajan seeks to readjust some of the key textural features, perhaps in order to make the symphony for legible for an unaccustomed audience. As a result, the famous trombone solo comes off more pronounced than it really should, if we are to keep true to what Sibelius actually wrote. As John Adams aptly put it in our recent talk, ”it is like putting meat tenderiser on it! Some MSG!” 

Going in the other direction, the orchestral shriek before the coda is quite understated and the final chord gets some rebalancing it most certainly does not need. Yet, to be fair to Karajan’s take, there are many ravishing passages of orchestral finesse within the performance. In addition, the reading is rooted in convincing appeal of organic development, and the tempo relationships are (mostly) well conceived.  

The main item on disc number four is the Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47 (1903-04/1905), with Christian Ferras as soloist. The composer’s most performed piece, Sibelius’s only concerto is one of those instantly charming scores, which only get better with years. One of the handful works by Sibelius in the Berlin Philharmonic repertoire before the Karajan era, the orchestra is perfectly at home with it on the 1964 recording. The joint vision of Karajan and Ferras is a solid one, and the performance is one of the finest of the era. 

The concerto is coupled with a solemnly spirited Finlandia, Op. 26 (1899/1900), where Karajan and the orchestra make perhaps more of the music than there really is. Be that as it may, the performance, taped in conjunction with the concerto, is, in any case, an engaging one, clad in deeply-etched symphonic colours. A slow-motion, 1967 rendering of Valse triste, Op. 44, No. 1 (1903/1904), a concert adaptation from Sibelius’s incidental music to the play Kuolema (Death), is given as a bonus track. Wonderfully played, but dead slow, Karajan’s reading stands apart form the performance tradition tempo-wise; for better or worse, that is up to the listener’s taste. 

The last disc offers early digital era remakes of the four tone poems, in performances very much similar to their sixties predecessors in their overall design, but more suave in texture. Over the years, DG’s skilful remastering teams have done a good job for updating the original sonics, although, speaking in general terms, the 1982 aesthetics may not have aged equally well as the mid-sixties sound design.  

Maybe the most appealing aspect of the remakes disc is its overall concept, where the four tone poems constitute an imaginary symphony, with Finlandia as an overture, followed by The Swan of Tuonela and Valse triste as its inner movements, and closing with Tapiola finale. 

As bonus tracks, Karajan’s only recording of the concert suite from Sibelius’s incidental music to Pelléas et Mélisande, Op. 46 (1905) appears on the fifth disc as well. Originally released as a companion piece to Karajan’s re-recording of Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suites (1875/1888/1891), Sibelius’s nine movement suite is one of the most extended concert adaptations of his theatre music. The suite retains the chronology of the play, and contains some of the most evocative music Sibelius wrote for the stage. 

A captivating 1984 performance form Karajan and the orchestra, the suite makes a fine addition to the four tone poems, completing the DG discography on the new set.

The hi-res audio adaptations of the analogue recordings are undoubtably endorsed by many collectors. The differences between the Blu-ray audio stereo layer and the CD masterings are sublime but noticeable, mostly in terms of added spaciousness. The multi-channel iterations are perhaps more matter of taste, but they too offer some interesting new perspectives. 

Berliner Philharmoniker

Herbert von Karajan, conductor

Jean Sibelius: Symphony No. 4 in A minor, Op. 63 (1910-11)

Jean Sibelius: The Swan of Tuonela, Op. 22, No. 1 (1895/1897/1939) – Legend for orchestra

Jean Sibelius: Symphony No. 5 in E-flat major, Op- 82 (1914-15/1916/1919)

Jean Sibelius: Tapiola, Op. 112 (1926) – Tone poem for large orchestra

Jean Sibelius: Symphony No. 6 in D minor, Op. 104 (1918-23)

Jean Sibelius: Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 105 (1918-24)

Jean Sibelius: Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47 (1903-04/1905)

Jean Sibelius: Finlandia, Op. 26 (1899/1900) – Tone poem for orchestra

Jean Sibelius: Valse triste, Op. 44, No. 1 (1903/1904) for orchestra

Jean Sibelius: Pelléas et Mélisande, Op. 46 (1905) – Suite for orchestra

Recorded at Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin-Dahlem from October 1964 to September 1967 and Philharmonie Berlin from February 1982 to February 1984

Deutsch Grammophon 4860651 (2021), 5 CDs & Blu-ray audio

© Jari Kallio

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