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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Symphony No.1 in E minor, Op.39 (1899) [39:37]
Symphony No.4 in A minor, Op.63 (1910-11) [38:43]
Pohjola’s Daughter, Op.49 (1906) [14:25]
Symphony No.2 in D major, Op.43 (1901/2) [44:35]
Symphony No.3 in C major, Op.52 (1904-7) [30:57]
Symphony No.7 in C major, Op.105 (1924) [22:27]
The Oceanides, Op.73 (1913-14) [11:59]
Symphony No.5 in E-flat major, Op.82 (1914-19) [30:58]
Symphony No.6 in D minor, Op.104 (1923) [25:49]
Kullervo, Symphonic poem, Op.7 (1892) [71:52]
Monica Groop (mezzo,) Peter Mattei (baritone),
London Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Colin Davis
rec. live, Barbican, London, 2002-2008. DDD/DSD.
Text and translation of Kullervo included.
Hybrid: SACD 2.0 stereo + 5.0/5.1 multi-channel
Blu-ray Audio 5.0/5.1 DTS-HD MA; 2.0 DTS-HD MA 24bit/192kHz
LSO LIVE LSO0675 [331:22]

Back in 2015 LSO Live reissued the Nielsen Symphony cycle by Sir Colin Davis in a box which offered the recordings on Hybrid SACDs and on a single Blu-ray audio disc (review). They’ve now given his Sibelius cycle the same treatment.

What does the package contain? The recordings are offered in their original disc format, spread across five Hybrid SACDs – I may be wrong but I think the original releases were all in CD format; certainly the ones I bought were. All the recordings were made in DSD with the exception of the very earliest, Symphony No 6, which is in high-density PCM. The BD-A disc presents the performances in a different order: the seven symphonies in numerical order followed by the two short symphonic poems and then Kullervo. The BD-A also contains downloadable digital files which you can access if you connect your Blu-ray player to the internet. I did my listening primarily using the 2.0 Stereo layer of the BD-A. When I listened to the SACDs, using the same Marantz player, I used the 2.0 stereo layer.

This LSO Live package is not the only one on the market that offers the Sibelius symphonies in Blu-ray but overall their offering is unique. Lorin Maazel’s Decca studio cycle was reissued in 2015 in a package including four CDs and a BD-A disc (review). Maazel’s cycle remains a significant achievement but the recordings are from the 1960s (1963-68), though they still sound very well, especially on BD-A. However, unlike Davis, Maazel doesn’t offer Kullervo. Nor does Sir Simon Rattle include it in his Berliner Philharmoniker set of live performances. In fact, that sumptuously packaged set only includes the seven symphonies. Rattle’s package boasts both a BD-A disc and a Blu-ray video but the other discs are conventional CDs (review). There’s also Hannu Lintu’s set of filmed live performances. I admired them very much in the DVD format (review) and Dave Billinge thought very well of the Blu-ray option (review). So no package is directly comparable with the Davis.

This was the third Sibelius cycle that Sir Colin Davis recorded, and his second with the LSO. His first cycle was recorded for Philips with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It was reissued as a very generous pair of ‘twofers’ in which format I’ve owned it for many years. I regard that cycle highly though I haven’t used it for comparative purposes here. The Boston recordings of the Fifth and Seventh symphonies have also been re-mastered and issued by Pentatone (review). Between 1992 and 1998 Davis made a second cycle, this time for RCA. Like the Boston series those recordings were made under studio conditions and this time he conducted the LSO, of which he’d become Principal Conductor in 1995, serving until 2006. Probably because I already owned the Boston set I didn’t acquire the RCA versions, even though this time Davis included Kullervo, so I’ve never heard these recordings though I believe they are still available (review).

When LSO Live began to issue the present cycle on CD I acquired Kullervo (LSO074), no doubt to complete the gap in my Davis Sibelius collection. I was also tempted into acquiring the coupling of Symphonies 3 and 7 (LSO051) and numbers 5 and 6 (LSO037). The opportunity to hear the complete cycle and to experience it as a BD-A was too tempting to resist.

I enjoyed hearing – or in some cases re-hearing - these performances. Sir Colin is a wise guide to this music. I’d not previously heard his account of the First Symphony and I discovered that there’s a great deal to admire about it. At times in the first movement he seems to me to be just a bit too expansive or, very occasionally, to underline an expressive point a bit too much. That said, elsewhere in the movement his reading is powerful and urgent. His account of the slow movement is more measured than some others and again there are one or two instances of point-making. On the other hand, the LSO bring his conception of the movement to life most persuasively – sample the veiled string sound at the start. Davis gets the string section to dig very deep in the rhetorical opening of the finale but once the allegro gets going the reading has thrust and bite. Later the famous big tune is taken very expansively – arguably a bit too expansively; Maazel, for example, is much brisker hereabouts, though does he miss some poetry thereby? When the tune is reprised by the full orchestra Davis and the LSO make it sound radiant.

The Second Symphony also comes off well. The first movement seems to me to be impressively paced and judged. Davis leads a dark, passionate account of the second movement though here, as elsewhere in the set, I would have welcomed more space around the sound of the orchestra – Rattle’s BPO live recordings are better in that respect. However, the Davis performance is still a fine one. From a well-driven scherzo there’s an excellent transition into the finale where Davis and the LSO are especially good at conveying the passages of grandeur. All in all this is an impressive traversal of the Second.

Those first two performances were new to me. I was glad to remind myself of Davis’s persuasive Third. He achieves good momentum in the first movement, controlling the music very well. He’s quite measured in his approach to the middle movement. Though some may prefer to hear the music unfolded a little more flowingly the care which Davis takes over moulding the phrases wins the day as far as I’m concerned. The third movement combines elements of scherzo and finale and I was taken by the phrase in Stephen Johnson’s notes where he says that “the finale’s theme can be heard stirring in the background – peering as it were through the scherzo’s rustling foliage.” I liked the sturdy, purposeful fashion in which Davis unfolds the finale material.

I’d not heard his reading of the Fourth Symphony before. The opening is promising with a veiled, withdrawn rendition of the cello solo (Rebecca Gilliver). This augurs well for the forbidding first movement and Davis does not disappoint. His performance has gaunt, dark power, making me wish there had been a performance of Tapiola to include in this set. Equally impressive is the slow movement which is just as dark and chilly. This is truly bleak and uncompromising music, the textures spare and therefore testing for the orchestra. The LSO plays the movement and, indeed, the entire symphony, extremely well. Davis leads a searching account of this stark movement and when the climax arrives it is gaunt and majestic. Overall, this is a compelling account of the Fourth.

The Fifth is also successful as a reading though again I would have liked a little more space around the orchestra than the Barbican acoustic will allow – in the opening pages I sense that the woodwind are rather too prominent, though I doubt this is the fault of the players. In the first movement Davis has an excellent feel for the structure. The transition to the scherzo episode is expertly handled and the gradual increase in momentum leads to a blazing conclusion. In the finale Davis conveys the grandeur very successfully in a very satisfying reading. I also admire the Sixth. The LSO strings are very impressive in the opening pages, as are the woodwind. The performance of the main allegro has freshness and clarity. The finale is full of vitality; indeed, it wouldn’t be too much to call the performance dashing.

Though most of my evaluation of this set was done using the BD-A disc with judicious sampling of the SACDs I made a point of listening to the Seventh on SACD and I found the results were very good. However, I also listened to two rival SACD versions, both from BIS. These were the excellent performance from the set conducted by Okko Kamu (review) and the recent highly impressive traversal from Osmo Vänskä (review). Both BIS versions, and especially the Vänskä, offer superior sound compared with the LSO Live SACD. In particular, both BIS recordings have far more space around the orchestral sound. Indeed, I’d venture to suggest that these SACDs offer as satisfactory a listening experience as one can get on Blu-ray. Although Davis may have to yield on sonic grounds his performance can stand comparison. The lead-up to the first appearance of the trombone theme and the theme itself – sonorously declaimed by Dudley Bright – are truly majestic and when the trombone theme appears a second time the sound of the LSO brass as a whole is tremendous. This is a performance of no little stature and the last four or five minutes are as majestic as you could wish to hear.

I wonder how many non-Scandinavian conductors have taken up Kullervo since Paavo Berglund, in particular, rehabilitated the score. Not that many, I suspect. So, all praise to Sir Colin for recording it, not once but twice. In passing, I believe I’m right in saying that he and the LSO performed Kullervo on Finland’s Independence Day in December 1992. This present LSO performance from 2005 is a fine one. The score is somewhat uneven and does tend to sprawl at times. However, it contains a lot of dramatic music and it’s important in forming an understanding of the composer’s development. Sir Colin directs a dramatic, often fiery account. Apart from this recording I don’t think I’ve heard a performance for which a non-Finnish choir was used. That’s partly a question of the difficult language in addition to which Finnish choirs have a timbre that’s particularly suitable. However, the men of the London Symphony Chorus, trained in those days by Joseph Cullen, make a fine showing. It helps that they’re well balanced in relation to the orchestra. In particular they sing with great intensity in the final movement as they relate the suicide of Kullervo. The two soloists, Finnish mezzo, Monica Groop and Swedish baritone, Peter Mattei sing very well in the extended central movement in which Kullervo seduces a young girl only to discover she is his sister. Davis brings a real theatrical thrust to that movement; it’s surely no coincidence that he had such an operatic pedigree. This is a powerfully projected, ardent performance of Kullervo.

Two shorter symphonic poems complete the set. Pohjola’s Daughter comes in a vivid performance, strongly projected. I first heard The Oceanides when it was auditioned in the MusicWeb International Listening Studio a little while ago. I reported then that my colleagues and I were impressed by Davis’s spacious approach leading to a really gripping climax. I see no reason to change that view. Some may feel Davis doesn’t push the music forward with sufficient thrust but his patience and his focus produce a memorable reading.

How should I sum up this set? All the performances are excellent, both in terms of the playing of the LSO and Sir Colin’s conception of the music. This is a cycle played by a virtuoso orchestra with a seasoned Sibelian at the helm. The recordings stem from live performances but you wouldn’t know an audience was present – though Davis himself is audible from time to time. As is usual with this label there’s no applause at the end of performances. The set is also valuable in offering the first recording of Kullervo to appear on Blu-ray. In terms of the BD-A option I think this Davis set has the edge over Decca’s Maazel set. That is mightily impressive on BD-A but the recordings are now over fifty years old in some cases and there is something of an edge to the treble frequencies, especially the violins. At the risk of making a sweeping generalization Maazel’s interpretations seem rather less warm than Davis’s. The Rattle set on the Berliner Philharmoniker’s own label is a premium product. Though I found much to admire there the LSO Live set is a much more economical proposition.

If you’re not able to play BD-A discs then the LSO Live Hybrid SACDs will provide good results, though the BIS SACD sets from either Kamu or Vänskä offer very strong competition, both sonically and in terms of the performances. In either format the LSO Live set sounds well but the Barbican acoustic doesn’t allow as much space around the orchestra and as much depth of perspective as I’d like.

However, overall, this Colin Davis Sibelius cycle is an attractive proposition and an excellent reminder of the fine and productive partnership between him and the LSO.

John Quinn

Previous review: Brian Wilson

 

 




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