It seems that if I express a careful but negative review, especially if Karajan is the conductor, I am likely to suffer indignant responses. Well, if you are a dedicated Karajan/BPO or Ferras fan, or if you like this violin concerto to sound endlessly gloriously romantic, this review will not be of interest: there are plenty of other affirmative positive reviews here for you.
I would hope that anyone who looks beyond the Karajan / Berlin Phil image, and seeks the intense "fire without warmth" and icy bleakness of Sibelius would find my comments at least reasonable from that point of view. I gave my score according to my preference for the performance of the violin concerto, with reasons below; and not the skill and world renowned musicianship of the artists, which are unique in their ways.
Christian Ferras has recorded this 3 times, one live (with Mehta) available to view on YouTube, and one (with Szell) available to view via virtuosochannel dot com.
I first heard the Ferras/Karajan recording of the violin concerto on vinyl in 1974 (when it was competing with the fabulous version by Kyung-Wha Chung with Andre Previn and of course the great 1960 release of the vibrant intense 1959 Heifetz/Hendl version, and I forget how many Oistrakh recordings - 3 or 4 by then). It embodies the DG and Berlin Phil sound under Karajan: rich, warm and sonorous, golden even, and Ferras plays the Sibelius romantically and warmly. I fail utterly to see, however, what this slow and warmly engaging version has to offer for those who love Sibelius' unique musical idiom. Looking at the score, the overwhelming sense of bleak passion and fire without warmth draws one into the world of cold landscapes and the loneliness of isolation - as also seen in The Swan of Tuonela, Tapiola, or Nightride and Sunrise, for example. The violin voice, so well understood by the violinist composer, seems best illustrated in less romantic, cooler, interpretations of this work, where the vibrato is tight and barely warming (like Heifetz, Mullova, Chung, Kang, Kraggerud, Wicks, for example). Ferras plays very slowly with a very wide vibrato, which becomes nervously over-intense in the second movement, and a concert hall reverberation acoustic, bringing a romantic warmth completely out of place in this work. This version is amongst the very slowest second and third movements on record, even slower (and more pedestrian) than the supremely cool intense slow Neveu recording. His collaboration with Karajan seems in fact ponderous and over-indulgent, whereas his other two recordings (with Szell, and with Mehta - also available to watch on DVD) are far superior (from the violinist's point of view of tempi and cold passion), though clearly not so well-recorded sound. Hearing his other two recorded versions, one wonders who was taking the lead in setting the pace here - it is so unlike Ferras' other well-paced renditions.
Naturally, I understand if listeners want to hear a golden concerto with climactic highlights sounding like hollywood film music, but I personally find such versions miss the whole point of this masterpiece. The Sibelius is one of the very few truly great and truly original violin concerto masterpieces. The second movement should move one to tears with a sense of intense loneliness and passion, not a warm schmalzy cliché.
The performance of Tapiola is truly fine and refined, for long time the best in the catalogue until the (very different) Paavo Berglund later outstanding performance with BSO.
Given the true musical greatness of the above works, by comparison Finlandia is a piece of fluff, so a critique of this is probably irrelevant for anyone considering this disc. Nevertheless, Karajan makes this patriotic untypical-for-Sibelius militaristic-overtone-music sound glorious. It is indeed a fine performance.
Note: The digital transfer for his CD has inferior rather dulled sound compared with the original UK vinyl pressing, to my ears.
If you want to hear a modern iconic performance of the Violin Concerto, try Kyung-Wha Chung (coupled with Tchaikovsky), even though it's recorded in 1970 or so - it's the version I keep returning to (and soon to be released as a remastered DSD stereo SACD). For digital clarity and exceptional Sibelian interpretation from violinist and conductor, try Victoria Mullova (icy) or Henning Kraggerud (cold but noble), or try Tasmin Little if you want a slightly less tight vibrato but still icy and great orchestral collaboration, they're outstanding. Older immortal classic iconic versions include Heifetz/Hendl 1959 "living stereo sacd" recent remastering, Camilla Wicks (Biddulph 2006 release remastering) if you can find it; or David Oistrakh (Ormandy); or Heifetz/Mitropoulos live with NYPO - the most satisfying Heifetz version IMO, if you can find it.
Buy this if you admire Ferras impeccable sound and technique, and the effective collaboration with Karajan.
Buy it if you prefer Karajan's Sibelius anyway, and if you want the finest Tapiola of the 1960s-80s.
Buy this CD if you want Sibelius Concerto warmed up, not if you want to understand the bleaker Jean Sibelius idiom.
(Though it remains a mystery to me why anyone would wish to serve Sibelius warm - its perfect straight from the fridge).
Ferras/Mehta live - view video on virtuosochannel dot com
Ferras/Szell live - view this on YouTube - see the second movement again and again.
Guila Bustabo - 1940 Jean Sibelius' second most beloved performer and benchmark recording esp 3rd movement
Anja Ignatius/Järnefelt 1943 - Jean Sibelius' most beloved performer, historical document.
Neveu/Barbirolli 1946 - a remarkable mono benchmark.
Camilla Wicks 1952 (Biddulph remastering or japan emi classics - blazing sound, corrects the wow and flutter) - rare but truly outstanding benchmark in sound, technique, rapport, and interpretation.
Haendel/Ancerl 1953 - Jean Sibelius admired Haendel's live radio performance
Haendel/Berglund - 1975
Haendel/Rattle - 1996 benchmark live performance
David Oistrakh (Ormandy) - Benchmark.
David Oistrakh (Ehrling) - Another excellent Oistrakh version
David Oistrakh (Rozhdestvensky) - Another excellent Oistrak version
Heifetz/Beecham -First recording 1935 - Benchmark mono and Jean Sibelius' admired recording.
Heifetz/Hendl - 1959 -SACD living stereo 3-ch remastering - Benchmark performance
Heifetz/Metropoulos - live - the most expressive 2nd mvt of Heifetz' versions.
Kyung-Wha Chung/Previn -sounds like a live performance electrifying but utterly perfect. Benchmark.
Kraggerud/Engeset DVD-A. Benchmark in surround sound.
Suwanai SACD (playing Heifetz' Strad "Dolphin"). Benchmark as hybrid SACD.
Kang/Leaper (brilliant violin playing, uninspired orchestral rapport)
Mullova/Ozawa - Benchmark ice maiden performance
Lin/Salonen - Benchmark masculine modern recording.
Little/Handley - very fine non-diva idiomatic sibelius.
Kavakos/Vänskä - Original 1903/4 version and final 1905 version comparison
Igor Oistrakh (Rozhdestvensky) - Disappointingly over-mannered
Maxim Vengerov/Barenboim - watch on DVD Video