Okko Kamu / Herbert von Karajan / Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra

Sibelius: Complete Symphonies

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Some critics claim that Karajan's 1965 recording of Sibelius' Symphony No. 5 with the Berlin Philharmonic is the greatest performance of that symphony ever recorded. Some claim that his 1967 recording of the Sixth is the greatest performance of that symphony ever recorded. And a few critics even assert that his 1965 Fourth is, if not the greatest ever recorded, at least the most beautiful ever recorded. Beautiful? Yes, certainly; all of Karajan's mid-'60s recordings of Sibelius, like all of his mid-'60s recordings of everything, were opulently, sumptuously, voluptuously beautiful. And if that's one's measure of greatness in Sibelius, than, yes, certainly, Karajan's Sibelius is very, very great. For those who like their Sibelius gnarly and gnomic, who hear him not as another late-Romantic but as an altogether more original early Modern, then Karajan's Fifth and Sixth, as beautiful as they are, are simply wrong. But while some might argue that the Fifth and Sixth are heroically late-Romantic, few would argue that the nihilistic Fourth and the enigmatic Seventh are anything less than aggressively modern and that Karajan's performances are anything less than wrong-headed. More appropriate by far are Okko Kamu's early-'70s recordings of the first three symphonies. The First and Third with the Helsinki Radio Symphony Orchestra still stand as among the most heroic -- and the gnarliest -- performances ever recorded. And while Kamu's Second with the Berlin Philharmonic is less successful, the fault is more the deeply ingrained opulence of the Berlin than Kamu's. For some critics, this is arguably the best set of the Sibelius symphonies ever released. For others, the First and Third alone have that distinction. Deutsche Grammophon's remastered sound is as good or better than the LPs.

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