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Sibelius: Symphonies 1-7; Kullervo
Peter Martel, baritone; Monica Groop, mezzo-soprano;
London Symhony Chorus (in Kullervo)
London Symphony Orchestra, Colin Davis, conductor
Review By Joe Milicia
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  Anyone looking for a boxed set of the seven Sibelius symphonies can easily find a baker's dozen currently for sale, starting with an earlier (1990s) set from Colin Davis and the London Symphony themselves, on BMG. It's a 7-CD set, but it costs much less than the new  LSO Live set — in fact, per disc it's the cheapest set on the American market — and includes Kullervo and the Leninnkeinen Suite (akin to a 4-movement symphony itself) plus many shorter tone poems. Or there is Davis with the Boston Symphony on Philips (recorded in the 1970s), also a bargain: 4 CDs with no Kullervo but with the Violin Concerto and three short tone poems. For a premium price there is the much-admired OsmoVanska/Lahti Philharmonic set on BIS (4 CDs, only the symphonies plus Tapiola) or the eccentric but fascinating LiefSegerstam/Helsinki Philharmonic on the Ondine label (with the Violin Concerto and Finlandia) or even another Segerstam set with the Danish National Symphony. Among the other bargain contenders, Paavo Berglund/Helsinki and NeemeJarvi/Gothenburg lead a list that also includes Maazel/Vienna Philharmonic, Ashkenazy/Philharmonia, Blomstad/San Francisco, Rattle/City of Birmingham , and Barbirolli/Halle.

I have by no means attempted to listen to all of these, but I can report that the new Davis set, put together from earlier releases spanning 2002-08, is overall of high quality, if somewhat variable in excitement of performance and recorded sound. Davis could be called a middle-of-the-road Sibelius conductor: not to imply that there is anything dull about his performances, but to say that he doesn't go to the extremes of glacial eeriness or Hollywood-soundtrack warmth that some other conductors seem to strive toward. He positions Sibelius neither as a 19th-century Romantic nor as a 20th-century Modernist but as a unique figure inhabiting both worlds.

Having reviewed the LSO Live disc of Symphonies 3 and 7 previously for Enjoythemusic.com ("Sir Colin Davis Continues His LSO Live Sibelius Cycle"), I'll say of them only that they exemplify Davis ' range of success throughout this set. The Third is superb in every way, notably in the rhythmic pulse throughout (including the slow movement) and in the colors and playfulness of the orchestra, especially the woodwinds, while the Seventh struck me as an "also-ran"--not bad but not the overwhelmingly intense and emotionally complex experience that a great performance of the Seventh Symphony should be (in less than 25 minutes!). The boxed set pairs No. 3 with No. 2 (previously a separate CD) and No. 7 with 5 and 6, to allow the symphonies to fit on three CDs, with a fourth for Kullervo.

No. 1 in the new set stands out in many ways, though unfortunately not in sound: it's a little muffled or fuzzy compared to the clarity and presence of No. 3, which was recorded three years earlier (in 2003). That said, Davis and the LSO are especially exciting in the second movement, where they bring out the extremely contrasting moods—beginning and ending with a gentle storytelling voice, but with all sorts of stormy episodes in between — while keeping a sustained dramatic thread. Davis is especially good at transition passages — a quickening pulse leading to another episode — though of course it could be said that a Sibelius symphony is all transition, that the greatness of the composer lies within those endless transformations. Davis ' scherzo is quicker than average, almost fierce. In the finale he doesn't attempt to overwhelm us with the "big theme" — perhaps a bit of British reserve here — but again is alert to the spectacular shifts in mood.

His No. 2 is variable though overall fine as well. The first movement is a perfectly acceptable performance but a little understated—it seems almost a prelude to the second movement, where Davis is again at his best, giving rich character to practically every note and letting the orchestra erupt in fierce drama whenever the occasion calls for it. The excitement can be felt from the very beginning, with those opening pizzicato triplets (contrabass alternating with cello) and that lugubrious bassoon melody (jarringly in 4/4 time against those triplets). The scherzo is fleet enough, and beautifully plaintive in its oboe solo in the trio section, though the opening section doesn't return as brutally as in some performances, and doesn't build as inexorably to the Finale as it might. But the Finale itself has all the grandeur and sweep that one could want, and does build thrillingly to the end.

There are different ways to perform No. 4, including to drain it of life — however bleak the life may be that inhabits one of the strangest symphonies ever written. My favorite recording, Paavo Berglund's with the Finnish Radio Symphony on Decca, later on Finlandia, long out of print, is stunningly passionate in those trombone statements carried on by the strings in the first movement, and reaches a climax of overwhelming grief in the third movement. I recall too an Akeo Watanabe/Japan Philharmonic Fourth (part of a complete set on the Epic label) that seemed to set the entire symphony in outer space, or perhaps the Twilight Zone — no Nordic vistas here. Davis and the LSO offer a committed performance, again middle-of-the-road. He keeps it moving, though without in the least rushing (the largo third movement is certainly in no hurry). The climax in the third movement is stirring though again a bit reserved. In the finale, where Sibelius' "glocken" have been interpreted by conductors as either tubular bells or glockenspiel, Davis uses both, so the sound is neither tinkly-cheerful nor hollowly foreboding. Davis doesn't make the trumpet outburst near the very end as shocking an entry as some conductors do, and his final notes trail off more than conclude — legitimate decisions for a symphony that demands an individualistic reading.

Davis ' No. 5 was a highlight of the Boston set, and it is once again here. The opening of the first movement is dreamier in mood than in the hands of some conductors, and no one carries the movement through its pastoral and slightly darker moods to its wildly exuberant climax better than Davis . The middle movement with its folk-tune qualities is as poignant as one could ask for, and the finale is properly magisterial, with an overwhelming buildup to those final ringing chords. The elusive No. 6 also receives from Davis an especially committed performance, with the strings in particular shining, from the tender opening passages to the quiet close, with no want of excitement in the fleet scherzo and the propulsive drive of the earlier pages of the finale.

Whether Kullervo is a "symphony" has long been debated. Sibelius certainly used this term for his ambitious 5-movement work, of which the third and fifth movements feature a men's chorus, and the third a solo baritone and mezzo soprano as well. Still, he also called it a "symphonic poem," and in any case he withdrew it from performance after 1893, though he never completely abandoned this work of his rapidly maturing youth; he allowed a performance of the third movement during his old age and evidently expected it would be performed after his death. It was not recorded until 1970 (Berglund with the Bournemouth Symphony), but very recently it has received several highly regarded recordings (notably by Vanska, Robert Spano, PaavoJarvi and Segerstam). Without making detailed comparisons, I'll say that Davis gives a vigorous, often impassioned performance, with the London Symphony Chorus offering equal commitment, and the two soloists are outstanding vocally and dramatically in their portrayals of the ill-fated warrior Kullervo and his sister.

As I've mentioned, the recorded sound — which by the way captures on occasion the vocalizations of the conductor — is variable on this set, ranging from acceptable to rather good — warm and balanced. Naturally, with works as great and varied as Sibelius' symphonies, no one boxed set is going to be definitive; but at a mid-range price Davis ' contribution is highly competitive, and for Davis fans a must-have.

 

 

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