Colin Davis Sibelius 3 & 7

0 of 5 stars

Symphony No.3 in C, Op.52
Symphony No.7 in C, Op.105

London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis

Recorded 24-25 September (Symphony No.7) and 1-2 October 2003 at the Barbican Hall, London

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: April 2004
Duration: 54 minutes

Colin Davis begins his third recorded Sibelius symphony cycle with this thoroughly absorbing coupling of Sibelius’s two C major symphonies. What a journey the composer travelled in the twenty or so years which elapsed between them!

The Third Symphony in some ways represents a ’fresh start’ for Sibelius’s symphonic writing. Leaving behind the overtly ’romantic’ approach in his first two numbered symphonies (Kullervo preceded both), Sibelius adopts a newly found lean classicism, with clear-cut thematic ideas whose working out is lucidly undertaken. One of the many strengths of Davis’s latest recording of it is the way in which the subtle allusions to themes heard earlier are made apparent in the second and third movements of the three-movement scheme. Indeed, the descending figure, which is heard right at the start is evidently the seed for much of the subsequent music.

In this opening passage, Davis’s performance grabs the attention immediately through very careful observation of the varied articulation markings – details which are often neglected but which receive their due here without exaggeration. As the movement progresses, the feeling of inevitable growth is tangible, with no sense of the structure being episodic – as it can be in less experienced or considered hands. The tempo indication of Allegro moderato is precisely followed, even if the basic speed is below the given metronome marking which, at 126 crotchets per minute, is arguably too fast anyway for the prescribed ’moderato’ direction. Whatever the case, Davis’s tempo feels exactly right, and he elicits a suitable ’weight’ of sound from the orchestra to make manifest one of Sibelius’s boldest – and, indeed, engaging – symphonic movements. The balance between the instrumental sections is exemplary: woodwinds are able to sing out without forcing their tone, and the brass is properly powerful without being overwhelming. The strings make every one of their semiquavers count – and so their rapid figurations, which feature in both the outer movements, take their rightful place as part of the musical argument. Dynamics are scrupulously observed and the broadening of tempo for the coda draws, with rests and pauses judiciously weighed, the movement to a noble conclusion.

The second movement, with its teasing between 6/4 and 3/2 time, is also completely successful. The purling flutes carol the main theme delightfully, and one is made aware of the gentle cross-rhythms, without them being over-emphasised. It is interesting how much importance is given to the double basses in this and the third movement, and the LSO’s bass section ensures we do not miss any of the significance in Sibelius’s intricate writing. This is a difficult movement to bring off; once again, Davis’s judgement is completely appropriate to both the letter and the spirit of the score.

The start of the third movement begins in a scherzo-like fashion; the slightly skittish quality, with playful interaction between strings and wind, is winningly captured. The music leads naturally on with transitions most skilfully managed; the build-up of momentum even has a hint of menace. The inexorable increase in power leads one to expect a more forceful realisation of the ’crescendo possibile’ and fff markings than, in fact, Davis and the LSO deliver. There is a case for more abandon at this point, but Davis scores heavily by bringing out the moments where the tritone interval is sounded – something not always made apparent, but which suggests that the clouds which permeate the Fourth Symphony are to be glimpsed occasionally here in the Third. As the symphony moves towards its conclusion, starting with a vigorous declamation of the hymn-like melody on violas and cellos, I have to part company with Davis’s reading of Sibelius’s ’sempre energico’ and aligned markings. In my view, these do not imply the gradual acceleration of tempo that Davis generates, but serve as a warning not to slow down. It is, of course, a matter of interpretation.

That aside, I respect Colin Davis’s integrity. This is a recording I shall want to return to often.

The need for a sense of the organic is inherent in any performance of Sibelius’s one-movement Seventh Symphony. Any problems of handling transitions, which the composer experienced in earlier works, have now been resolved. This remarkable music grows unerringly. Davis again displays mastery – from the brooding opening towards the finality of the last bars. A totally convincing performance leaves the question as to what else Sibelius could possibly have said – symphonically. Even though Davis and the LSO are not quite on the same high level in this symphony as they achieve in the Third, this is, nevertheless, a very fine performance indeed, with conductor and players creating a much darker sonority from what is, remarkably, the same disposition of instruments (with the addition of a third trumpet) as in the earlier work.

An almost world-weary sense of resignation is invoked at the start, various instruments emerging almost ’Parsifal’-like from the texture. Maybe the string paragraph – initially designated ’mezza voce’ – builds too strongly too quickly, but this passage and its subsequent leading into the first of three trombone statements, is otherwise uncommonly well handled. The trombone itself is placed firmly within the orchestra and is perhaps a little recessed. But better this than being ’spotlit’. Davis and his players are particularly good in the broad, expansive passages, and the more mercurial and, later, tempestuous sections are also effectively realised. There really is a feeling of striving towards a final destination, and as the music seems to be moving almost reluctantly towards its close, the strings’ initially unresolved dissonance creates a distinct chill in the air. Davis adds an unmarked crescendo in the brass and timpani on their last chord, but he is not alone in this regard.

Overall, then, this release is warmly recommended. It certainly makes an auspicious beginning to Colin Davis’s latest Sibelius series.

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