Saturday, September 30, 2017

Karajan’s Sibelius in Berlin

The last of the thirteen boxes in Warner Classics’ Karajan Official Remastered Edition is one of only two boxes devoted to a single composer. Where Walter Legge and the Philharmonia Orchestra were involved, the composer was Ludwig van Beethoven. The box consisted of six CDs and included the first cycle of the nine symphonies that Herbert von Karajan recorded. The final box with the Berlin Philharmonic, on the other hand, presents the music of Jean Sibelius. It consists of only four CDs and is in no way comprehensive. There is also a bit of ambiguity over the title of the box. The cover reads Karajan: Sibelius 1976–1981, and that is sufficient as a description.

The Philharmonia recordings devote three CDs and two tracks from a fourth CD to Sibelius. This is also not a comprehensive collection. Of the seven symphonies, the first and third are missing from the Philharmonia set; and the third and seventh are missing from the Berlin box. As might be expected, both include “Finlandia” (in both monaural and stereophonic recordings in the Philharmonia box), as well as the popular “Valse Triste” and the Opus 112 “Tapiola.” The Berlin box also includes another popular selection, “The Swan of Tuonela,” as well as the Opus 9 “En Saga” and the Opus 11 Karelia suite. There are also the recordings that Karajan made in Berlin in the Sixties for Deutsche Grammophon, which are also not comprehensive; but these predate the EMI sessions.

Those who know their Sibelius would probably agree that the toughest nut to crack is the fourth symphony (Opus 63 in A minor). Beginning with the tritone in the opening gesture, this is a score that is continuously restless from beginning to end, making it an acid test for any conductor to establish a sense of the whole and then make it clear how that whole breaks down into constituent parts. In this respect it is worth noting that the two recordings of symphonies by Anton Bruckner in the tenth box were both recorded between September of 1970 and February of 1971. Those symphonies have similar challenges, although they do not pursue the ambiguities of chromaticism the way Sibelius does. Nevertheless, I would conjecture that the listener who is well prepared to apprehend the part-whole relationships in Bruckner is probably just as qualified to do so in Sibelius’ Opus 63.

With that as a point of reference, I have to say that, where my own personal tastes are concerned, I am far more satisfied with these Berlin recordings of Sibelius than I am with those made by the Philharmonia (or, for that matter, those made with Deutsche Grammophon). Karajan’s command of Opus 63 in this box establishes a perspective from which one can appreciate all of the other recordings on this set of four CDs. That even goes for the Karelia music, which I find almost impossible to listen to without thinking of the old Marlboro cigarette commercials!

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