Sibelius: Symphony No. 4 (HDCD review)

Also, The Swan of Tuonela. Herbert von Karajan, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. HDTT HDCD362.

Even though Herbert von Karajan was enormously popular, not everyone loved him. For me, he always sounded as though he wanted to glamorize the music he conducted more than necessary with long, flowing tempos and a luxuriant orchestral sound. While Karajan's approach pleases me in grand opera, I never entirely cared for it in orchestral music. That's probably why I never bothered to listen to his 1965 DG recording of the Sibelius Fourth Symphony. I figured that if any piece of music cried out for a simpler and more-rugged style than Karajan's, it was the Fourth, even though I rather liked conductor's later, 1976 EMI recording. Now, with this HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfer) remastering of the DG recording, I can see what Karajan might have been on to all along.

Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) wrote his Symphony No. 4 in 1911, and it has always reminded me of a vast, flat, icy plain, maybe in Lapland, brooding in silence. It's certainly one of the Sibelius's bleaker yet more-characterful works. Karajan's somewhat measured interpretation and the magnificent playing of the Berlin Philharmonic make the music sound as bleak and melancholy as ever, the desolation of the landscape all the more complete with the conductor's slow pace. Yes, Karajan still tends to make the music sound a little too outright pretty for my taste, but it's a legitimate reading, and one can hardly deny the virtuosity and sheer beauty of his Berlin ensemble.

Sibelius felt he was near death when he wrote the piece; however, he would live for 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." Therefore, don't expect much joy here. Nevertheless, Karajan's extraordinarily broad tempos keep one involved, making the work seem more lofty and more emotional than some competing versions. I would place this Karajan performance along with his later EMI recording and those of Ashkenazy (Decca), Barbirolli (EMI), Berglund (EMI), and Vanska (BIS) at the head of my list of recommendations.

Herbert von Karajan
The symphony opens with a theme "as harsh as Fate," as the composer described it, and that's the way Karajan sees it: desolate, cold, and powerful. The succeeding Allegro molto vivace brings a note of serenity to the otherwise dark proceedings, but it also turns slightly sinister (though never threatening).

Originally Sibelius labeled the slow Largo section "The Thoughts of a Wayfarer." It continues the sullen atmosphere of the piece, with Karajan emphasizing its mysterious mood shifts and establishing a truly lonely place. Then, while the final Allegro opens brightly, even cheerfully, promising a sudden change of temperament, it soon reverts to the desolation of the opening movement. Here, too, Karajan skillfully outlines the bleak, expansive landscapes.

Although the performance may be a tad too cushy and comfortable for this music, Karajan nevertheless leads us through a powerful reading of the score, thanks, too, no doubt, to the excellence of the orchestra and to the impressive remastering HDTT provide us.

Karajan succeeds in the coupling, too. The Swan of Tuonela moves as gracefully as any you'll hear. With Karajan's fondness for poetic renditions and the orchestra's rich, luxurious effect, the piece sounds quite lovely.

Deutsche Grammophon originally recorded the music at Christ Church, West Berlin, Germany in 1965, and HDTT transferred it from a DGG 4-track tape in 2015. I never much cared for the sound DG afforded Karajan and his Berlin players. Early on, in the analogue age, it seemed a bit too vague to me, with little or no deep bass. Later, with the introduction of digital, the Berlin Philharmonic sounded too glassy, edgy, and still bass-shy to me, despite an enormous dynamic range. But maybe it was all in DG's masterings of Karajan's recordings for vinyl and CD because here the HDTT remastering is excellent.

The HDTT remastered sound has great power, as much to match the performance. Moreover, there is good clarity in the midrange, although not so much as to sound artificial. The plush sound of the Berlin Philharmonic comes through splendidly, without any unnatural wispiness or, conversely, glassiness. The miking is just distant enough to provide a decent perspective, the orchestra nicely centered between the speakers and not extending too far beyond them. Additionally, we hear a modicum of depth in the ensemble as well, so we get some dimensionality in the sonics. Most important, though, is the disc's dynamic range, which impresses one with its strength and impact (especially in the mid and upper bass). Here is a recording to match the lofty darkness of the music.

For further information on HDTT's various configurations, formats (CD, HQCD, FLAC, DSD, DVD-24, DVD-24, etc.), and prices, you can visit their Web site at http://www.highdeftapetransfers.com.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa