Sibelius
Symphony No.5 in E flat, Op.82
Symphony No.6 in D minor, Op.104
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis

Recorded 28-29 September 2002 (Symphony No.6) and 10-11 December 2003 at the Barbican Hall, London
CD No: LSO LIVE LSO0037
Duration: 57 minutes
Reviewed: July 2004
This is the second release in Colin Davis's latest Sibelius cycle. Like the previous coupling of symphonies 3 and 7, this issue contains a performance of especial interest, whilst both attest to the strong and responsive partnership between this conductor and orchestra.
Sibelius's Fifth Symphony caused the composer particular difficulty, but the final version is one of his very finest works and probably his most popular symphony after No.2 This performance is, overall, perhaps rather darker in conception than is often the case, with the shadows and troubled elements given prominence. The opening section is, unfortunately, compromised by the recorded sound, which is close and unforgiving; thus many of the woodwind phrases are too loud and forward to convey a sense of mystery. Oddly enough, however, the string pianissimos are rightly hushed, although there are one or two stabbing accents that jar somewhat. As the movement progresses, the performance starts to sound rather effortful. The transition to the scherzo is very well handled, with Davis ensuring that the music does not suddenly lurch ahead, the tempo effectively judged to enable a subsequent gradated increase in speed, although there is not, ultimately, the ideal sense of either culmination or sheer excitement.
The second movement moves at a prevailing tempo, the woodwind and horn chords beautifully blended. The architecture of this movement is apparent, and the music seems much less discursive than it can. But I did not care for a somewhat indulgent, almost sentimental approach, to some of the broad string phrases, and the unflattering sound exposes one or two minor infelicities of ensemble.
There is admirable animation at the start of the finale, with the string tremolandos conveying a degree of urgency, though some unmarked accents and dynamic shadings will not be to all tastes. When the music broadens out, again there is a tendency for tension to sag, though the final peroration is satisfying, as are those concluding widely spaced chords, perfectly timed and placed. For repeated listening, and in the face of some stiff competition on disc, this is not a version to return to frequently, in spite of the undeniable integrity of Davis's interpretation.
The Sixth Symphony, however, is a different matter. This elusive music is given a most convincing reading, and the recorded sound is more open, though there is still an unwelcome sense of constriction at times. The opening is not too dreamy – a clear symphonic statement rather than vaguely impressionistic string sounds – and the main body of the movement has the right sense of animation without being too fast. Here and elsewhere I would have welcomed hearing a little more of the harp and bass clarinet, whose distinctive contributions colour the score. The variegated ideas of the second movement – there is not really a 'slow' movement as such - are given particular characterisation, and the Poco vivace which follows has a tempestuous, defiant quality and servers to remind one just how much of this symphony remains firmly anchored to the minor mode. This troubled mien is carried over to the finale where stormy scenes are again manifest, and the concluding string paragraphs have an affecting air of world-weary resignation.
As in the Fifth Symphony, the somewhat brooding air of much of this music is made apparent, and one would be hard-pressed to consider this symphony as Sibelius's 'Pastoral', as some commentators choose to do. Davis's way with the Sixth is especially thought-provoking; and whatever reservations one might have with the Fifth, this is music-making of serious intent and purport which deserves respect and gives much cause for satisfaction.

 

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