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Jean Sibelius
Symphonies Nos. 3 and 7
Sir Colin Davis Conducting
The London Symphony Orchestra

Review By Joe Milicia
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CD Number: LSO Live LSO 051


  When Colin Davis recorded the seven Sibelius symphonies with the Boston Symphony in the mid-1970s (he was their Principal Guest Conductor, and not yet Sir Colin), the performances were very well received. A digital cycle followed in the mid-1990s, this time with the London Symphony, for RCA — a set that critics seem to have responded to with either adulation or disappointment. Now, less than a decade later, he has begun a new cycle with the LSO, this time recorded live for the LSO's own label.

In the wrong hands, Sibelius' Third Symphony can sound a bit dull or repetitive. In the right hands, of course, it is a joyful and at times wistfully poetic work, surging with youth (though the composer was 42); it is often compared to Beethoven’s Eighth as a "lighter," more compact work compared to the symphonies that precede and follow it, but equally inventive. I haven’t heard Davis’s RCA set, but can say that the new recording of the Third compares very favorably with the BSO version, and not only in sound, as would be expected. Davis’s approach to the symphony has not conspicuously changed, but the LSO performance has all that is best about a live performance: a sense of urgency, a drive toward an end, a risk-taking exploration. Take the very opening of the symphony, where the LSO violins lustily dig into their accented 8th notes — the first they play in the symphony — and the high woodwinds answer them with a burst of cascading notes.

High spirits don't necessarily mean faster tempos: the new LSO performance is over a minute longer (at 30' 52") than the BSO. Davis takes the chorale-like coda that surprisingly ends the first movement more than "un pochettino largamente," but the sounds are sweet and warm, not ponderous. The second movement, which for many listeners evokes Northern fairy tales or forest scenes, is taken just a little slower than the tempo marking, and with enough rubato to create a gentle rocking motion. The brief Tranquillo section midway through, for divided cellos answered by woodwinds, is as tender and mysterious as one could want, and there is again fine rhythmic propulsion in the last part of the movement as Sibelius rings changes upon the opening theme. The mercurial scherzo portion of the finale flies by almost too fast, and the ever-accelerating march that concludes the work has all the energia that the score specifies.

For comparison I listened to a performance by Paavo Berglund, who has recorded two Sibelius cycles for EMI--analogue in the later 1970s with the Bournemouth Symphony and digital with the Helsinki Philharmonic in the mid-1980s — and one for Finlandia with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. The Bournemouth performance is a lovely one, with sound that holds up quite well on my British pressing. Berglund may be supreme among Sibelius conductors in creating a sense of suspended time and of musical fragments evolving and interweaving in unpredictable ways, as if for the first time, no matter how often we have heard the music.

Compared to Berglund Davis is more the robust Englishman than a twilight-lake-haunted Finn (neither a bad thing to be). Berglund makes the second movement even more a richly varied bard’s tale than Davis does, and gives more of a golden sunset glow to the coda of the first movement. But Davis’s vigor and sensitivity make his new performance well worth acquiring.

Shortly before the release of the Davis/BSO recording of the one-movement Seventh Symphony there was a broadcast tape of a live subscription performance. The music was performed with such drive, power and tragic beauty that, maybe inevitably, after hearing the broadcast I found the studio recording a bit disappointing, though the last several minutes do have a blazing intensity. More disappointing is the new LSO version, especially paired with such an outstanding Third, and considering that it is a live performance (or at least an amalgam of two in the Barbican Center — with no audience noise whatever, by the way). Here, even with LSO Live's superior sound, the final moments of Sibelius’ masterpiece seem less impassioned than in the BSO version.

There are many distinguished recordings of the Seventh, but again for comparison I chose one by Berglund, the early-digital 1984 version with the Helsinki Philharmonic. The Finnish conductor handles the symphony's constant shifting of moods — somber, playful, solemn, agitated, and so much else — admirably. The concluding pages are not overwhelming in his rendition, but earlier in the work the first appearance of the noble trombone solo is thrilling as it rises above the wave of orchestral sound. Curiously, in both his BSO and LSO performances Sir Colin partly submerges the trombone in the choir of the other brass. Clearly this is the blend he wants, but since the "solo" marking for the trombone is one of the few in the entire score, Sibelius surely intended the melody to have more of the prominence, thematically and dramatically, that Berglund gives it. All the same, Davis does have strong credentials as a Sibelian, and one looks forward to the next entries in his latest cycle.





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