20 July 2023

P.R. Jenkins

Spotlight Sibelius: The Fourth Symphony

Karajan met many contemporary composers whose works he interpreted (Strauss, Orff, Shostakovich etc.). That was not the case with Sibelius but the almost 90-year-old Finnish master was able to receive the first Philharmonia recordings Karajan made of his symphonies in the 1950s.

On 15 September 1954, Sibelius wrote to producer Walter Legge:

Dear Friend,

As you know, I have always been a great admirer of Mr v. Karajan, and his magnificent recording of my works has given me the keenest satisfaction. Especially in the Fourth Symphony, his great artistic line and the inner beauty of the interpretation have deeply impressed me. I beg you to present my grateful greetings to him.

With all best wishes,

Very sincerely yours,

Jean Sibelius

Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony op. 63 was first performed in Helsinki in 1911 with the composer on the rostrum. He had written the dark and brooding work in a period when he seriously feared for his life (because of a tumour in his throat) and he kept a life-long preference for it. Karajan recorded the Fourth three times in the studio but conducted it rarely in public – compared to the Fifth, which he performed 27 times. Maybe the reason was a specific intimate affection for the piece. His biographer Richard Osborne wrote:

“As we have seen, few pieces of music meant more to Karajan than this. He used to cite it […] as one of those works that left him emotionally exhausted for days afterwards. Other music he could – and indeed did – immediately clear from his mind […] but not the Fourth Sibelius. His approach to the work was intensely personal and would become more rarefied and searching with the passing of the years.”

Having conducted it twice with the Staatskapelle Berlin in 1943, Karajan mostly performed it in connection with his recordings. A singular event was the invitation to Helsinki for a concert with the Berlin Philharmonic on Sibelius’s 100th birthday in 1965 (he had died in 1957). Karajan visited Sibelius’s house in Järvenpää in the countryside near Helsinki, met members of the family and went to Sibelius’s grave nearby.

Karajan was enthusiastic about the villa. Osborne even assumed that it inspired Karajan when he was building his own house in Anif. The concert was an all-Sibelius programme with the Fourth in the first half. When the applause started and Karajan left the rostrum, he murmured: “It can’t be played more beautifully than that.” – A rare moment, because he almost never said anything after a performance.

In Helsinki, Karajan received the Finnish medal.


When Osborne visited Karajan, he found the Sibelius biography by Eric Tawaststjerna on the shelf. The dedication was:

“To Herbert von Karajan. The only conductor who understands the Fourth Symphony. Eric Tawaststjerna”

This is the recording Sibelius himself listened to and praised:

Richard Osborne: “Karajan. A Life in Music” Chatto & Windus, London. 1998

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