Symphony No.1 in B flat minor
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis
Recorded in the Barbican Hall, London on 23 September and 4 December 2005
Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson
Reviewed: June 2006
CD No: LSO LIVE LSO0076
Duration: 46 minutes
Recorded by combining two public performances given over ten weeks apart during the autumn of 2005, the engineers have managed to overcome the problems of resetting microphones in identical locations and have presented a consistent sound notable for its power. The strings, however, are generally rather reticent – especially in their quietly threatening pulsation at the opening of the work. The full orchestra is successfully contained and there is no audible evidence of compression. The brass is particularly well-captured – and not only in the massive outbursts.
The dynamic range is wide and this brings to mind a famous recording of the work by the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by composer (HMV ALP 1027, and re-issued on CD) where the opposite was true: it was all very loud. One critic complained at the time that “some loss of immediacy would have been preferable to the orchestral glare that rises from page after page of this violent and hostile music”. Inevitably the composer’s own performance remained the recommendation for some time but a rather good contemporary recording by Sir Malcolm Sargent was seriously underrated (Sir Malcolm was never a favourite of the critics in those days).
As an interpreter, Sir Colin Davis is very sympathetic. There are aggressive moments in this work and full rein is given to the orchestra at the end of the opening movement, but in general Davis never overstates the more violent aspects. The scherzo avoids the brashness sometimes foisted upon it; here it is clear and forthright but never bombastic. Perhaps the slow movement could have moved forward more positively but Davis’s reflective view creates an oasis of warmth. He gives an even flow to the music in the finale and this makes for a suitably optimistic summing up, the cross-references to the dark opening of the first movement are given a new and lighter perspective. The strength of this movement lies in the reading of the big fugue, about three minutes in. So often interpreters emphasise the detail of this passage, thereby losing forward thrust, but Davis keeps the pace moving consistently so that the fugue becomes part of a movement containing diverse musical ideas all driving inevitably to its projected rowdy but triumphant ending.
Lack of presence in the strings is always a feature of this recording and their modest impact around ten minutes into the finale where dramatic reference is made to the main theme seems a case of understatement. String tone, though generally not very bright in the treble, also has moments of glassiness when playing loudly. The recording is not short on detail and although there is no disturbing audience noise, there are sundry quiet human ‘groans’ (from the conductor, presumably).
Applause has been removed. I approve of this procedure for live recordings issued on CD, especially as this is not a one-off occasion – to applaud an edited combination of performances would be meaningless.