Grieg and Sibelius: Orchestral Works (CD review)

Herbert von Karajan, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. DG 474 269-2 (2-disc set).

For a long while it seemed as though Herbert von Karajan would always be around. I mean, when I was a kid growing up in the Fifties, Karajan was already an established superstar. He was the leading conductor of the day when I began seriously collecting classical music in the Sixties; he was among the first to jump aboard when digital recording began in the Seventies; and he was there when Sony and Philips introduced CD's to the world in the Eighties. Now that he's gone, DG, for whom he made the bulk of his later recordings, have been reissuing everything he ever did, this collection of Grieg and Sibelius orchestral works just one in a series of two-disc compilations of his hits that DG began releasing in the early 2000's.

The album begins on disc one with music of Edvard Grieg: Peer Gynt Suites Nos. 1 and 2; Holberg Suite; and Sigurd Jorsalfar: Three Orchestral Pieces. Disc two contains music of Jean Sibelius: Finlandia; Valse triste; The Swan of Tuonela; Pelléas et Mélisande; and Tapiola.

Listening to the first tracks on disc one, the Peer Gynt Suites Nos. 1 and 2, reminds one of his magic. The music is letter-perfect, luxurious, and alluring as only Karajan could make it. Every note is polished to a luster, the great Berlin orchestra sounding fabulously plush and precise. The orchestral sound alone would make Karajan the most famous conductor since Toscanini or Stokowski, but it would also create for him a few detractors as well, people who considered him a glamor boy over-embellishing the music he performed. Maybe, but it sure sounded nice.

As I say, the two discs in this collection are each devoted to one of two famous Scandinavian composers, Grieg on disc one and Sibelius on disc two. Of the two discs, I preferred the Sibelius because Karajan's way of music making seems best suited to Sibelius's larger-scale works. Grieg, on the other hand, would seem to benefit from a little more intimacy, something Karajan had trouble producing, at least here. Sibelius's Finlandia, Valse triste, and Pelleas et Melisande come off best, with great crescendos and soft whispers of sound piling forth and fairly smothering the listener with riches.

The sonics, though, are typical of DG from the late Sixties to early Eighties. There is plenty of midrange presence, good detail, strong dynamics, and wide stereo imaging; but there is little top end, little bottom end, and little sparkle. It's perfect sound for mid-fi audio systems and car radios, where it was probably most-often heard when DG first produced it.

But even digitally remastered at 96 kHz/24 bits can't improve what may not have been there in the first place. Karajan's fans won't mind, nor did I mind until I compared it to similar material on other labels. Note, for instance, the enormous difference in frequency range between Karajan's 1972 recording of the Peer Gynt music and Beecham's much earlier recording on EMI's "Great Recording of the Century," the Beecham sounding better than a lot of stuff made today. Still, it's the music that counts, and Karajan's set contains some of the man's most likable and characteristic work.


To listen to a couple of brief excerpts from this album, click here:

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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.

Mission Statement

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