It is good to hear Karajan's legendary performances on this EMI 2-Cd set at mid price. They date from 1981 or thereabouts and are maybe even better than the equally famous DG versions.
Karajan's personality is perfectly suited to the nordic, mysterious complexity and architectural strength of this music. The First Symphony, unfairly disregarded often as a weaker,
somewhat "derivative" work (e.g. Tchaikovsky or Borodin) here receives an unforgettable reading,proving all its detractors wrong and already displaying a mature composer. Karajan propels the first movement with breathless conviction to its accelerando ending . Note the Berlin timpanist's ff hammer blows- these will drive you off your seat! The third movement is like a dance of the cave men ,elemental and relentlessly rhytmical. .At the beginning of the last movement,listen to the strings opening out the initially quiet clarinet theme into a passionate, transformed melody. One can almost visualise Karajan's extended arms and swaying upper body, muscles tensed, physically compelling the players to do their utmost. There is a sense of inevitability throughout and Karajan's control and concentration is beyond belief.
As for the desolate and brooding Fourth symphony : This was a celebrated performance when it was first recorded, but somewhat poo-pooh-ed
by English music critics as being a "too comfortable, plush view of Sibelius' desolate world" or such like phrases.. Reading the reviews today, however, they are
backtracking by saying that Karajan's reading is probably the most insightful of all available versions.
In addition to the four symphony performances we are given a bonus, the lighthearted Karelia Suite, performed here with panache, giving the Berlin brass a great opportunity to shine. And shine they do,(especially in the "Alla Marcia" movement). Although in the "Intermezzo" Barbirolli with his lilting rhythms still remains my favourite, this is also a very fine performance indeed.
There are of course other great interpreters of Sibelius such as Beecham, Barbirolli, Colin Davis, Kajanus etc. but Karajan,in addition to his great gifts, enormous talents and energy, had the great luck of working
with the Berlin Philharmonic, an Orchestra he moulded into a formidable "instrument" of his own.(Being born into the digital stereo era did no harm to his tremendous career either).
At mid-price this set is a bargain and you won't get better performances than these. A lot for your money! Most recommendable!