Sibelius: Popular Tone Poems (CD review)

Finlandia and others. Herbert von Karajan, Berlin Philharmonic. Warner Classics 0724347684623.

One of the nice things to come out of Warner Classics taking over the EMI catalogue is that Warner has started reissuing some of the classic titles from the EMI ranks. This rerelease of Sibelius tone poems from Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic is a good example: The performances are first-rate; the disc includes two more selections than found on the LP; the sound is quite good; and the mid price is welcome.

Unfortunately, it doesn't appear the folks at Warner knew what to call the collection once they put it together. The old LP simply listed on the front cover the tone poems it contained. This reissue uses the original LP artwork, so it's a little misleading by not having all the CD's titles on it. Additionally confusing, the CD spine calls the album "Famous Tone Poems," while the disc itself says "Popular Tone Poems." Growing pains, I suppose, as Warner Classics finds its way; eventually, I'm sure the left hand will know what the right hand is doing.

In any case, the slight confusion in labeling doesn't diminish the quality of the music or the music making. Karajan and his Berlin players are in top form as they offer up six short Sibelius works, pieces they would record two or three times for DG and EMI before Karajan's passing.

Herbert von Karajan was among the most-popular conductors of the twentieth century, particularly leading the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic Orchestras. However, that didn't mean that everybody loved him, and his critics often complained that he often glamorized the music he was playing with his flowing tempos and luxuriant orchestral sound. Anyway, love him or leave him, Karajan had a special affinity for the music of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957), as this disc demonstrates.

First up on the program is En Saga, from 1892 Sibelius's first purely orchestral work. It doesn't appear to have any specific story behind but, rather as Sibelius explained, "En Saga is the expression of a state of mind. I had undergone a number of painful experiences at the time and in no other work have I revealed myself so completely. It is for this reason that I find all literary explanations quite alien." Under Karajan the music conveys a strong harmonic structure. While maybe it doesn't project as much atmosphere as some other recordings or as much excitement, it has a taut yet resilient integrity and a somewhat brisk pace that make for a powerful narrative, and Karajan's handling of the slower parts is really quite fetching.

Herbert von Karajan
Next is the lovely Swan of Tuonela, made even more appealing under Karajan's loving guidance. Sibelius wrote it in 1895 as a section of the Lemminkäinen Suite, four legends from Finnish mythology. Like his earlier DG account, the performance is fluid and serene in almost majestic terms. With Karajan's fondness for poetry and the orchestra's opulent, luxurious effect, the piece sounds quite lovely.

After that is a selection not included on the original LP: the Karelia Suite from 1893. Its three movements are a jaunty, marchlike Intermezzo; a medieval Ballade; and a rousing Alla Marcia. Here, the grandeur of the Berlin orchestra really comes to fore. Even if the music itself may be a little bombastic, Karajan and his players infuse it with an impressive richness, and again the conductor handles the slow movement with a deft hand.

Then, we get probably Sibelius's single most famous piece of music, Finlandia, a patriotic piece written in 1899 as a protest against increasing Russian censorship in Finland (the country was at the time under the rule of the Russian Empire). Karajan's way with this familiar music is almost overwhelming. It's not the most subtle approach, but it is undoubtedly just what such vigorous music demands: strong, uplifting, and magnificently performed.

Valse triste is another track not found on the original LP. Sibelius composed it in 1903 as a part of the incidental music for a play by his brother-in-law. Today, though, we mostly know it for itself. Karajan takes it at a rather slow, almost gloomy pace, bringing out the melancholy element of the music more so than many other conductors. Given the nature of what the music represents in the play (a dying woman mistaking death for her husband), the conductor's approach seems entirely appropriate.

The album concludes with Tapiola, Sibelius's last major work, premiered in 1926. The music depicts Tapio, a spirit or god of the forest in Finnish legend, and the tone poem describes the forest in which Tapio lives. This is the most atmospheric of Karajan's Sibelius. The conductor's tempos are broad and the rhythms sweeping. He builds a most-evocative picture of the god and his misty, snowy, desolate northern woods. The storm section is especially thrilling as it arises from the quiet that precedes it.

Producer Michel Glotz and engineer Wolfgang Gulich recorded the music at the Philharmonie, Berlin in 1976, 1980, and 1981. According to the Warner booklet notes, this disc uses the Abbey Road remasterings from 2002 and 2005, so if you already have EMI's issues from back then, these should sound the same. There's a fairly balanced frequency response involved; good, though seldom extreme, dynamics; some small degree of warmth but with decent detail; and moderately good lows and highs. These are relatively clean, clear recordings, in fact, although perhaps a trifle hard in the upper midrange, hardly noticeable.

JJP

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.

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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