Herbert von Karajan / Berliner Philharmoniker

Sibelius: Symphony No. 2; En Saga

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Although it's slow, most of Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic's 1981 recording of Sibelius' Second isn't as slow as it sounds. The opening Allegretto is broad-tempoed but not really all that much slower than most post-Sixties recordings. The following Tempo andante, ma rubato is more than broad-tempoed -- it is positively glacial -- but given the weight and depth of the music, this is not altogether unprecedented or untoward. The following Vivacissimo is slower in duration but only because the central Trio is slower than usual -- the Vivacissimo itself is up to its tempo indication. The closing Finale -- Allegro moderato, however, is more than broad-tempoed, more even than glacial, it's absolutely geological. Eras come and go before the development; epochs come and go before the recapitulation; and whole ages pass before the coda finally ends. It's not that the Berlin Philharmonic can't sustain the long line: then as now, the BPO is the most virtuostic orchestra in the world, and under Karajan, there was no line too long for them to spin out in golden threads of sound. And it's not that Karajan can't hold up the long line: now and always, Karajan was among the most dictatorial of conductors, and he could make even the most attenuated tempo hold together through sheer strength of will. It's that no matter how virtuostic the Berlin or how dictatorial Karajan, the Finale of Sibelius' Second simply doesn't work at this speed. Instead of historically inevitable and musically ineluctable, it sounds historically pompous and musically ponderous. The 1977 En Saga that closes the disc is a tad broader than usual but nothing too out of the ordinary tempo-wise, and the Berlin's virtuoso capacities and Karajan's dictatorial tendencies appear right at home in its heroic themes and epic structure. In both recordings, EMI's sound is warm, clear, open and deep.

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