Herbert von Karajan

Karajan: Sibelius, 1976-1981

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Longtime collectors of Herbert von Karajan's EMI recordings with the Berlin Philharmonic may already own many of these Sibelius performances on LP or CD, though budget-conscious newcomers should be aware of a few problems in this reissue in Warner Classics' official remastered edition. First, and most importantly, this is not a complete cycle of Sibelius' symphonies, since Karajan never recorded the Third, and the Seventh was recorded for Deutsche Grammophon in 1967, falling outside the period covered by this set (1976-1981). For a complete set of the symphonies (though without the tone poems that are included here), the DG triple CD reissue with recordings by Karajan and Okko Kamu is a better substitute. Second, the reproduction of this compilation is uneven, with the best all-digital sound presented on the first disc (Symphonies No. 1 & No. 6), and the weakest remastering of the analog masters on the third CD (Symphonies No. 4 & No. 5), which offers fairly thin textures at soft dynamics and harsh sonorities at climaxes. Third, Karajan's reputation for interpreting Sibelius -- based in part on a generous endorsement from the aging composer in the 1950s, and also on the conductor's critically praised recordings in the 1960s -- is highest among his loyal fans, but it is not universal. The nearly contemporary recordings by Colin Davis and the Boston Symphony Orchestra on Decca are bona-fide classics, and the superb SACD cycle by Osmo Vänskä and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra on BIS is another set worth trying.

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