I have a number of recordings of Sibelius' violin concerto and for a number of years this one has been languishing on my shelf. I didn't think it would surpass the Kyung Wha Chung/ Previn or Tossi Spivakovsky/Hannikainen recordings.
However, having just listened to Ferras and Karajan in this score, I can say that it is the equal or superior of pretty much any great rendition. This isn't a cool Nordic approach but a full blooded Romantic rendition. You might not agree with this approach but frankly, I was completely bowled over. Ferras has a gorgeously rich tone and is full on in his intensity of playing. Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic play gloriously and so much thematic material is unearthed. Every note seems to tell. I can honestly say that I heard this work with new ears when I played this recording.
Karajan has made many recordings of Finlandia, which must rank as Sibelius' most popular short orchestral work. Here it gets a fabulously dark and exciting performance.
on 19 April 2013
This was the only time that Karajan committed the Sibelius Violin Concerto to disc - he did not record it even with Ann-Sophie Mutter. All of his wider credentials as a Sibelian are on display here: he imbues the music with a sense of fragility, of half-light and the immensity of nature. Christian Ferras was a fine enough violinist (his Brahms violin sonatas on DG with Pierre Barbizet are astounding) and he certainly adds to the bite of the performance. His tone is rich and there is a visceral excitement to his art. The great climax in the slow movement is played gutsily by all concerned. One of Karajan's strengths as a conductor was his pacing - when the revelatory moments come, one is left in no doubt as to their arrival.
The Tapiola here makes one deeply regretful that the Eighth Symphony - a contemporary of this work - had a Close Encounter with Siblius' fireplace at Ainola: what a piece Tapiola is! It brings to mind that famous line by Auden: we are lived by powers that we pretend to understand. Here, Tapio is pantocrator in a primordial forest that not even Prokofiev's Wolf would readily tread . . . .
Finer still, performance-wise, is Finlandia - Herbie's second recording of the piece. The Berlin Phil, then at the height of their fame, gave their utmost to the cause. It is virtuosity incarnate. This rendition is surely a high-water mark in the thirty year relationship of Herbie and the Berlin Phil. While the EMI remake from 1976 is worthy enough, the digital remake from 1983 cannot hold a candle to this torrent of a performance.
The recording does not hide its age but it is still listenable.
on 4 August 2011
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 icy intensity and fiery bleakness of Sibelius would find my comments at least reasonable from that point of view.
I first heard this 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). 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 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, 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, for example). Ferras plays very slowly with a slow and wide vibrato, and a concert hall reverberation, bringing a romantic warmth completely out of place in this work. I suspect this version is amongst the very slowest second and third movements on record, even slower (and more indulgent) than the supremely cool intense Neveu recording. His collaboration with Karajan seems 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 not so well-recorded sound.
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 concertos. The second movement should move one to tears with a sense of intense loneliness and passion, not a warm schmalzy indulgence that sounds cliché.
The performance of Tapiola is truly fine and refined, though very different from Paavo Berglund's outstanding performance.
Given the true 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.
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 this work, 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 its soon to be released as a remastered DSD stereo SACD). For digital clarity and exceptional Sibelian interpretation from violinist and conductor, try Victoria Mullova or Henning Kraggerud, 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 mastering) if you can find it, or David Oistrakh (Ormandy).
Buy this CD if you want Sibelius warmed up, not if you want to understand the Jean Sibelius idiom. Though it remains a mystery to me why anyone would wish to serve Sibelius warm - its perfect straight from the fridge.