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Jean Sibelius Symphonies Nos. 1-7; Kullervo (feat. conductor: Sir Colin Davis; feat. orchestra: London Symphony Orchestra) Review

Compilation. Released 2009.  

BBC Review

Consistently confident and exuding an unshakeable stamp of authority.

Andrew Mellor 2009

Here, assembled and repackaged, are Colin Davis’s recordings of the Sibelius symphonies made live with the London Symphony Orchestra between September 2002 and July 2008. You also get the composer’s early symphonic poem for soloists, chorus and orchestra, Kullervo.

First, some background: Davis championed Sibelius’s music in the UK and America before it became mainstream. Cue the lazy PR spiel that he’s among the world’s leading interpreters of the Finn’s music. In truth, Davis’s early Sibelius recordings with the Boston Symphony Orchestra have dated. Added to that, audiences have recently begun to accept as definitive the cool, often sparse interpretations offered by Finnish artists that reveal more of the inherent darkness and light in the music.

But none of that lessens the impact of these recordings, which are at best very fine indeed. The mature Davis has a way with the music’s architecture like few other conductors. The pace of the expansive Second and Fifth Symphonies is masterful. Combined with the innate warmth and pretty much faultless playing of the LSO, it makes for some of the most readily satisfying performances available.

So, when Sibelius’s ‘big tunes’ arrive, they seem to do so just at the right time. In the Fifth symphony’s final movement, Davis holds back at the moment the Swan theme modulates, but other than that the tempo doesn’t change: it’s emotionally effective, but also steers a satisfying course between the purist Finns and the schmaltzy Americans.

A sense of structure and direction impresses in the more elusive symphonies too, particularly the eerie Fourth, which hangs together as well as Karajan’s. Kullervo is an unmitigated triumph: LSO Live’s sometimes boxed-in sound engineering can impede elsewhere, but here it only adds to a vivid sense of earthbound journeying. The Chorus delivers uncannily authentic Finnish pronunciation.

Vladimir Ashkenazy’s ongoing cycle with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic is a clear current rival: it offers a Seventh symphony of greater vulnerability and more clarity and balance elsewhere. But any cycle boils down to musical sense and structure. The LSO’s consistent confidence and warmth can exhaust, but wrapped up in it is an unshakeable stamp of authority.

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