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


To listen to a brief excerpt 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