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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 43 (1902) [40:52}
Tapiola, Op. 112 (1925) [20:13]
Symphony No. 4 in A minor, Op. 63 (1911) [36:10]
Symphony No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 82 (1919) [32:36]
Finlandia, Op. 26 (1899) [9:03]
Philharmonia Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
rec. London, 1952 (Finlandia, Symphony No. 5), 1953 (Symphony No. 4, Tapiola), 1960 (Symphony No. 2)
MAJOR CLASSICS M2CD009 [66:07 + 77:51]

Before he developed his legendary relationship with the Berlin Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan was a Walter Legge protégé with the Philharmonia Orchestra in London. Together they made a number of notable recordings including an acclaimed Beethoven cycle and these performances of music by Sibelius.
In due course Karajan would go on the re-record Sibelius in Berlin. He brought out six of the seven symphonies on record, for both DG and EMI, but never recorded the Third anywhere. Did he ever perform it?
These Philharmonia performances of the Second, Fourth and Fifth Symphonies can stand comparison with the later versions even if the recorded sound sometimes shows its age. To be fair, this performance of the Second was recorded in stereo in 1960. It sounds well too, and even the mono recordings of the other pieces have sufficient tonal lustre to do justice to that aspect of the music, which after all is important in Sibelius as it is with other orchestral masters.
The Second is the most frequently performed of the Sibelius symphonies, although in many respects it is the least individual. It remains a masterpiece, with an epic sweep behind which there surely lurks a nationalist stance. Like the recent recording from Mark Elder and the Hallé (CDHLL7516), Karajan’s performance has a breadth which does justice to this aspect of the music’s essential nature. The Philharmonia’s brass can never have been on better form than they were as captured here in the finale.
The Fourth Symphony dates from seven years earlier, in 1953, and while the sound is accurate and sonorous, it does lack the body of string tone and sophistication of dynamic that more recent recordings (including Karajan’s own (EMI 9072462) can muster. The sense of line and intensity of vision are wonderfully achieved by the Philharmonia however, and once the ear is acclimatised, the results are nothing if not compelling.
The same might be said of the Symphony No. 5, which Karajan recorded the previous year. In some ways, in terms of symphonic sweep for example, this reading is to be preferred to his later ones from Berlin (DG Originals 4577482), although the tone from the strings, and particularly the violins, does occasionally lack richness.
This is a great performance of Tapiola, but so too is the later Berlin recording (DG E4137552) which has really excellent sound, whereas the 1953 recording is adequate rather than spectacular. Finally this 2CD set from Major Classics includes a stirring performance of Finlandia, helping to make the whole collection a most appealing prospect at super-bargain price.
Terry Barfoot  

Masterwork Index: Sibelius Symphony 2 ~~ Symphony 4 ~~ Symphony 5