SIBELIUS: Symphony Nos. 5, 6, & 7 – Philharmonia Orchestra/ Herbert von Karajan – Praga Digitals 

The last three of the Sibelius symphonies vibrate with a clarity and intensity peculiarly Karajan’s.

SIBELIUS: Symphony No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 82; Symphony No. 6 in d minor, Op. 104; Symphony No. 7 in C Major, Op. 105 – Philharmonia Orchestra/ Herbert von Karajan – Praga Digitals PRD 250 355, 77:30 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi/PIAS] ****:

At the behest of EMI music producer Walter Legge (1906-1979), Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan (1908-1989) received a kind of political/artistic reprieve in 1946, his having been banned from musical activities in Vienna by the Soviet occupation for Karajan’s participation in Nazi cultural life.  Legge wished to see his recently formed Philharmonia Orchestra of London enjoy a honing process under such musical directors as Karajan, Dobrowen, and Susskind. The Sibelius symphonies recorded here date from 1955 and 1960 (E-flat Symphony), respectively, celebrating the better of ten and fourteen years’ association between Karajan and the most superb British orchestra ensemble after the formation of Beecham’s Royal Philharmonic.  Karajan certainly adds to the pantheon of great Sibelius interpreter, but we must ponder why the Symphony No. 3 in C, Op. 52 never received from him its due in terms of live or recorded performance.

Sibelius christened his Sixth Symphony (1923) as a “poem made up of spring water,” admitting that its strong Dorian leanings contravened the atonal and irreverent modes of classical music of the 1920s. The first, lyric movement clearly derives from the Dorian affect that characterizes much of Finnish folk music. The avoidance of “heroic gestures” (of the Fifth Symphony) by no means diminishes the poignant flow of the music, to which the Philharmonia strings and winds—in parallel thirds—find themselves in fluid harmony. While Sibelius had second thoughts about the second movement Allegretto moderato, wishing to mark it as Andantino, Karajan renders it as a breezy march that verges on scherzo motion. Flutes and bassoons work their magic against pulsating strings.  The theme unfolds in continuous metamorphosis, contrapuntally and in explosive unisons. The relatively brief Poco vivace offers a gallop in which the divided violins seem to act independently. The “calm and poetic” finale is marked Allegro molto – Allegro assai. The Dorian character of the first movement reappears, here in the form of a bucolic chorale. If the symphony does in fact evolve from a prescribed Dorian kernel, then its four movements are a pose for what is really a single-movement tone-poem like En Saga or Tapiola, and of course, the Seventh Symphony. The winds, harp, and strings of the Philharmonia have rarely played so poignantly, resounding with a heart-breaking clarity of orchestral definition.

The Seventh Symphony  (1924) fulfills Sibelius’ ability for thematic compression and structural consistency. The paring down of musical procedure into its barest essentials might seem a concession to the atonalists ad minimalists, but the sonic poise retains a chastity and ethereal clarity we might look for in Palestrina. Karajan’s approach proves rather expansive, when compared to some classic performances, such as those by Mravinsky, Beecham, Stokowski, and Golschmann.  “Joy of life and vitality mixed with appassionato,” wrote the composer of this work.

For this “symphonic fantasia” Sibelius gave vital parts of his rising-scale pattern to his strings and winds, but no less to his trombone. The music quickly evolves into a hymn theme, of which its second half belongs to the trombone group. The chastity of the scoring Sibelius called “Hellenic,” and he conceived the latter part of the score an “Hellenic rondo.” The producers of the Praga disc have divided the symphony into four sections, with a rather unnatural pause at the end of the Adagio – Vivacissimo.  The Rallentando al-Adagio finds the brass dominating the musical progress, with strings rising in an almost vicious Mannheim rocket based on the progression D-C-B-C.  The Scherzo—as such—also follows an unnatural break, but its whirlwind compensates for the distracting editing. The gossamer playing finds Karajan having achieved a chamber-music effect in the midst of a swirl of vital emotions. The finale, melancholy and nostalgic, hints at the popular Valse triste, with the leading tone B finally rising to its resolution on C.

Sibelius once claimed that his having seen a flight of fifteen swans dictated the form of his Fifth Symphony (1915; rev. 1919). Karajan recorded this work in 1960, after he had already accepted the Musical Directorship of the Berlin Philharmonic.  Like most interpreters, Karajan conceives of the multi-dimensional first movement as an extended arch-form, heavily layered by arduous strettos and counterpoints. No one in my listening experience has equaled Celibidache in this score: his reading from Denmark outshines even his brilliant performance in Sweden, both with radio-symphony ensembles.  Karajan brings forth girth, menace, and monumentality. The four-note opening motif proves to be an organic element, seamless and fateful. The Andante mosso, quasi allegretto, a theme and variations, begins in pizzicato and evolves through the composer’s color expertise. The winged swans may propel the opening of the Allegro molto, which soon reveals a horn chorale that will end with five hammer blows, a la Mahler. Karajan injects a rousing aura of spiritual confidence in this music, whether or not the composer would have preferred a sense of mystery.

The Praga restored sound paled my former impressions of the EMI Philharmonia records; now, the opulence rings true with a cool authority Karajan would cultivate in Berlin.

—Gary Lemco

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