Sibelius: Symphonies 4-7 (CD review)

Also, Tapiola. Herbert von Karajan, Berlin Philharmonic; Sir Simon Rattle, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra; Paavo Berglund, Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra. EMI 50999 9 07246 2 (two-disc set).

Complain, complain, complain. My favorite Sibelius symphonies are the first two, so it's just my luck that EMI would issue numbers four through seven in this excellent, 2011 reissue collection culled from some of the best of their back catalogue. No, of course, I shouldn't complain. They have chosen well, and the selections we find here are among the best you can buy from any company at any price. The fact that EMI are selling this set at mid price makes it a bargain for the music lover who doesn't already have the recordings. Let's go through them one at a time.

Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) wrote his Symphony No. 4 in 1911, and it bears repeating that the music has always reminded me of a vast, flat, icy plain, maybe in Lapland, brooding in silence. Recorded in 1976 by Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic, the conductor makes it more measured and more melancholy than ever, the desolation of the landscape all the more complete; and the thing just gets slower as it goes along. Sibelius felt he was near death when he wrote the piece; however, he would last another forty-six years, so I suppose you could say it was a false alarm. Later, Sibelius said of the symphony, quoting the Swedish author Strindberg, "Being human is misery." Don't expect much joy here. Nevertheless, Karajan keeps one involved, even with his extraordinarily broad tempos, making the work seem more lofty and more emotional than some competing versions, including his own earlier DG recording. I would place this performance among those of Ashkenazy (Decca), Barbirolli (EMI), Berglund (EMI), and Vanska (BIS) at the head of the list for the work.

Sibelius wrote his Fifth Symphony at the beginning of the First World War, with its premiere in 1915. However, the version we usually get is the revised one from 1919, performed in this collection by Sir Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, recorded in 1988. The revised version melds the first two movements into one, making a three-movement construction. Under Rattle, we get perhaps the single best performance in the set. He would record the symphony again, each time with equal success. With its grand gestures, it sounds more like typical Sibelius than the Fourth, and Rattle whips up a good head of steam by the final, somewhat melodramatic conclusion.

Sibelius's symphonies got more concise as they went along, with Nos. 6 and 7 his shortest of all. Symphony No. 6 comes from 1923, and we're back to Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic in a 1980 recording. The Sixth is often Sibelius's most overlooked symphony, yet it's quite lyrical and serene. Karajan was always good at developing big, expansive themes, so he is at home here. It is only in the third-movement Scherzo that the piece picks up any serious animation, which the composer carries over into the first half of the Allegro finale, the tension soon fading into a peaceful ending. Karajan does OK with it, although I tend to like his earlier DG reading better for its greater poetry, if not for its sound. I personally count the versions by Davis (RCA), Berglund (EMI), Barbirolli (EMI), and Vanska (BIS) above this rendition, but there's certainly nothing wrong with Karajan's handling of it.

Sibelius's last symphony, No. 7 (1924), is his shortest by far, his combining four movements into one flowing work. Paavo Berglund and the Helsinki Philharmonic handle it well in a 1984 performance that is strong, direct, yet moving, even majestic. Frankly, however, most other recordings of the Seventh tend to pale in comparison to Beecham's (EM), but Berglund's is a good alternative, so it's nice to have it here.

The set ends with Sibelius's lengthy tone poem Tapiola from 1925, again handled by Karajan and the BPO in another 1976 recording. The composer sets the story of Tapio, Finnish god of the forest, in the icy north, making it seem much akin to his Fourth Symphony. Tapiola is a colorful tale that Karajan negotiates handily, in his usual sweepingly grandiose manner.

In terms of sound, the best recording is Rattle's CBSO account of Symphony No. 5: smooth, rich, warm, and natural, with good stage depth and fine dynamics. The Karajan Berlin recordings tend to sound more multi-miked, with greater midrange clarity, greater impact, and a brighter, more forward sound at the expense of less orchestral depth. The Berglund Helsinki recording tends to fall somewhere between the two extremes, well balanced and commendably transparent.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa