Symphonies 2 & 5 – Karajan Edition (1960, EMI)

Symphony No.2 in D major, op.43
Symphony No.5 in E-flat major, op.82

The Philharmonia Orchestra
conducted by Herbert von Karajan

EMI Classics Karajan Edition CDM5 66599-2
[77:04] mid-price
Symphony No.2 recorded March 1960. No.5 recorded Sept 1960.

An original Flying Inkpot review by The Inkpot Sibelius Nutcase

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Herbert von Karajan (1908-1989) has always been rather special to me. You see, unfortunately (for me), he died the very year I discovered many of his greatest recordings, which contained music which has influenced me to this day. Since his death, the usual reactions occured and many collectors and critics alike came out to bash him. This posthumous bashing is pathetic and typical of the narrow-minded who can only appreciate art by listening to cynics and not the music itself. Every conductor has his good and bad recordings, bar none. For Karajan, when they were good, they were REALLY good.

Herbert von Karajan
Herbert von Karajan

Since the first batch of CDs from EMI’s Karajan Edition came out, I have been waiting for the Philharmonia recordings of the Sibelius symphonies – some of these, especially the Fourth, Seventh and Tapiola, are the stuff of legends, with the personal approval of the composer.

Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony is a Karajan specialty, having recorded it four times. The 1965 recording for DG (Galleria 439 982-2) remains the best. This version opens well, and is just as fine until the flute spoils the picture with a strained note or two. The performance is slightly wanting in concentration for the first third of the movement, though the orchestra plays with marvelous skill throughout the symphony. The first big climax near the beginning does not quite have the swell and burst of light which distinguishes the Berlin 1965 recording. Nevertheless, the point where the two original movements were joined (around 8’46”) is beautifully executed by Karajan. In the monumental conclusion, the Philharmonia rises to the occasion with a glorious blaze of brass. The precision of their playing, along with the pulsating horns in the background, provide an exciting ending.

In this performance of the gentle Andante, the subtle ‘dancing’ pulse seems to be emphasised. I can almost feel a little waltz, a whiff of the anxiety of the Valse triste. In the finale, the Philharmonia horns ring out like bells in the “Swan Hymn”, an alternative to the softer “hymn” tone. When more than a little brash, the former approach is a little ugly and clumsy. But here it is carefully done – the horns are brought to the fore without drowning the strings or the majestic winds in the background. The great C major climax is certainly not the best I’ve heard – Karajan’s DG recording “blossoms” with greater excitement.

Karajan moulds the misterioso section with great atmosphere, misty and then chilly. Towards the end, the trumpets’ climax is earthshaking (in fact, it’s very loud – watch the volume!). Six orchestral chords end the Symphony – there are a huge number of ways to deliver this unique conclusion: Karajan takes them straight, determined rather than anticipating, with a purposefulness which reads differently from other versions. In fact, come to think of it, there is a sense of purposeful moulding which marks this version more than the Berlin 1965 recording – this is both a pro and a con. It makes the music move more efficiently, but at the same time reduces the naturalness with which it flows – works in some passages, but not others.

Karajan’s Philharmonia recording of Sibelius’ Second Symphony appears for the first time on CD here. With its majestic finale, one would think it’s completely suited to the lush “Karajan sound” – believe me it is. The first movement is an Allegretto landscape by turns calm and stormy. The moody second movement, a brooding D minor exploration of darkness. Karajan and the Philharmonia show excellent sense of pacing and contrast, responding with ample understanding of the music’s dramatic shifts of tension. The gleaming brass and huge explosions of timpani glower in tragic heroism. The strings are skilfully articulate and richly sonorous, strongly characterising the Allegretto as well as the F-sharp major theme of hope in the Andante sostenuto of the second movement, with one of the most beautifully sculpted endings I have ever heard. With pungent double-reeds, sharply trilling flutes, grand outpouring emotions and a heartwrenching brass cry, crescendo, the orchestra truly impresses.

The vivacissimo scherzo is tautly rendered with great discipline, purposefully driven without rushing. In the pastoral trio, the oboe solo sounds nasal (or “pungent”?), neither annoying nor sweet. Thankfully, this does not seem to spoil the performance. Both these sections are repeated, but in a symphonic masterstroke, Sibelius develops the second trio seamlessly into a great churning of swirling winds and long-breathed brass chords, while the strings, sweeping in anticipation the three-note ascending motif that has been resident in the symphony, drive the music into its famous finale.

Here, the earlier symphonic material joins in a majestic melody that would have sent many a Romantic composer packing home. This great outpouring of D major, with its grand string theme, is 100% Karajan’s cup of tea. In addition to richness of sound and expansiveness of expression, the trick to making this movement sound good has always been pacing. Some conductors go too fast and sound hurried (Rattle/EMI); others fast tempo but pace and control well (Berglund/EMI). Others good pace, but lethargic, no frisson at all (Davis/RCA, Davis/Philips). Some are sustained purely by this energy and tension, whatever their tempo (Kamu/DG, Maazel/Decca, especially Bernstein/Sony). In his 1980 recording (also for EMI but with the BPO), Karajan went very slow but it produced a reading of great cosmic energy. In this Philharmonia recording, the sonic limitations aside, he belongs to the few renditions (Jansons/EMI, Segerstam/Chandos) where everything is impressively held together, energized and beautifully paced.

Restlessly propelling the music, the Philharmonia perform with enormous conviction, pouring out tremendous gales of energy all the way to its heroically defiant final coda. Many, many performances fail at this point, because this triumphant conclusion is completely and unashamedly affirmative to the point of being “vulgar” – the word used by critic Virgil Thomson. In bad renditions, I cannot help but agree – it gets very sentimentalised and overblown. I am happy to say, however, that Karajan gets everything right here – the coda is splendidly constructed, the trumpets playing with the orchestra rather than sticking out like a sore thumb. This performance ranks among the very best versions that I now own. (Yes, I’m a nutcase: I have 16 versions. But then you should trust me even more…)

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Leon

Leon is Singapore's resident champion of Jean Sibelius.

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