Symphony No.1 in E minor, Op.39
Symphony No.4 in A minor, Op.63
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis
Recorded in the Barbican Hall, London – Symphony 1 in September 2006, Symphony 4 in July 2008
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: December 2008
CD No: LSO LIVE LSO0601
Duration: 78 minutes
If the quiet timpani roll that begins Sibelius’s Symphony No.1 is here a trifle fudged – in that it seems edited into the ‘created’ silence that precedes it – then Andrew Marriner’s clarinet solo immediately sucks the listener into a lonely, even godforsaken place. Sir Colin Davis (a clarinettist in a previous life!) gives Marriner all the time he needs to really establish something forlorn, the upper strings then cutting into the darkness with ‘ice-breaker’ intensity and with the first full-orchestra outburst (brass and timpani to the fore) being notably thrilling. Davis’s flexible (very expressive) pacing for the first movement opens out its daydream, whether through the ‘icicles’ of woodwinds and harp, the brooding expression, or the storm-tossed development that eventually bursts the emotional banks.
This is one of the very finest recorded accounts of Sibelius’s First Symphony, full of detail and incident, vividly and spaciously recorded, and with a potent bass line. The slow movement also relishes contrasts and doesn’t try to disguise the Tchaikovskian influences. The scherzo – here playful and muscular by turns and becalmed by a trio whose expression is gently breezed – becomes a prelude to the finale, which Davis plunges straight into and simmers it with emotional expectancy, fully exploiting Sibelius’s ‘Quasi una fantasia’ designation and delivering a full-on Romantic ‘second subject’ (too much so, maybe) from 3’44” (and an insertion of a pause, at 3’35”, would not have gone amiss!). If some of the finale’s rhetoric is overdone, this is a performance of drama and power enjoying the subtlety and insight of a great conductor of Sibelius’s music.
One might have expected Colin Davis to conduct (at this stage of his career) an even darker and delving account, something more distinctly psychological, of the extraordinary Fourth Symphony than he actually does. This is a creation that Andrew Achenbach appositely describes in his booklet note as having a “stark, implacable manner and soul-searching introspection … surely Sibelius’s most challenging, profoundly disturbing utterance.” Davis, while musically incorruptible (he charts its course with certainty), is slightly (and it is only by a few degrees) ‘distant’ from what can be one of the most agonising works in the repertoire. Yet, the third movement (marked ‘Il tempo largo’) is bleakly slow and infinitely sad – quite chilling in fact.
The finale (as directional and confrontational as anything Sibelius left us) is, like the first movement, just a little too comfortable here (Davis opting for glockenspiel and tubular bells in combo, a fine compromise for what is no longer a textural conundrum – Sibelius almost certainly wanted the ‘spiel but the bells are ‘colder’ in sound, to advantage). If the dissonant climax does quite ‘grind’ as it might have done, then Davis is a master of the final bars – there’s not even a suggestion of slowing the pulse; this is music that stops – unresolved – rather than finishes.