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Sibelius: Symphonies No 1-7, Kullervo / Davis, London SO

Release Date: 10/13/2009 
Label:  Lso Live   Catalog #: 191   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Jean Sibelius
Conductor:  Sir Colin Davis
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Symphony Orchestra
Number of Discs: 4 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews


Colin Davis recorded a Kullervo Symphony with the LSO as part of his often lousy complete symphony cycle for RCA. His ongoing series of remakes for the orchestra's own label have been atoning in large measure for the sins previously committed against a composer that Davis knows and understands as well as anyone alive today. Whereas the earlier Kullervo was as dull as dishwater, this newcomer is simply thrilling, a performance that goes straight to the top of recommended recordings, which have been surprisingly abundant considering the work's obscurity until the last couple of decades. The best include two by Berglund (both EMI), Järvi father and
Read more son (BIS and Virgin), Segerstam (Chandos), Panula (Naxos), Vänskä (BIS again), and Salonen (Sony). Most of these are very good: that earlier Davis recording was the worst of the bunch.

So: Why is this release so much better than the previous one? In the first place, Davis has knocked about 10 minutes off of his earlier timing. The performance no longer spills over onto a second disc, but beyond reasons of mere speed and economy, all of the tension formerly lacking is found in abundance here. Whereas previously, in the first movement, Davis settled for a sort of generalized atmospheric quality, here Kullervo's theme has shape and muscularity. Kullervo's Youth, arguably Sibelius' first fully characteristic symphonic movement, acquires the necessary gruffness and edge. Listen to the ruggedness and forward momentum in the choral narrations that open Kullervo and His Sister. The men of the LSO Chorus are outstanding, as are the two soloists, Peter Mattei and Monica Groop.

Kullervo's Death has extraordinary power and concentration, with Davis taking special pains to bring out the details of Sibelius' often eerie string writing. The closing orchestral funeral march is particularly gripping, the closing bars grimly heroic. In short, this is a great performance by any standard, and it's also extremely well recorded, more warmly than many in this series, whether in stereo or SACD multichannel surround formats. As for the work itself, each hearing only makes Sibelius' ban on performances during his lifetime ever more incomprehensible. Perfect it may not be, at least as compared to his later symphonies and tone poems, but it is wholly characteristic and every bit as fresh and new as, say, Mahler's Das Klagende Lied. When treated with such compelling force and urgency, it's impossible to deny Kullervo its rightful place as a major, even great piece. Fantastic!

--David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com


Colin Davis and the LSO are at it again in Sibelius, and while I generally take a dim view of so much repertoire duplication by the same artists, here I have to admit that they have a point. Their previous cycle for RCA was very spotty indeed, slackly played and not at all well recorded, particularly in the Third Symphony, and this remake makes handsome amends for what otherwise would have remained a blot on the career of one of our great Sibelius conductors and on an orchestra with as rich a tradition in this music as any.

It's very interesting to compare this live performance to Olli Mustonen's recent release on Ondine, for while they are aesthetically at polar opposites (Mustonen is swift and lean, strictly sticking to the letter of the score, with Davis unhurried and generously free with gear shifts in transitional passages) both conductors achieve complete top-to-bottom clarity of texture and understand the music's unsentimental, neo-classical underpinnings. In the first movement (the most controversially slow in this interpretation) Davis nearly comes to a dead halt at the opening of the development, and his milking of the second subject in the cellos may raise a few eyebrows, but he's so rhythmically pointed, and the ensemble is so well-balanced and in tune with what he wants to do that he banishes all reservations.

The second movement is slow, but not as slow as, say, Vänskä, and Davis takes most of the extra time in the first interlude, conjuring up a magical solemnity to those hymn-like interjections from the lower strings. When the principal thematic material returns, listen to the clarity of the pizzicato accompaniment and to the playful caroling of the woodwinds in their rolling arabesques toward the end. Although this movement often has been described as a combination of scherzo and slow movement, it seldom sounds so. Here it really does; it's an absolutely masterful characterization of music that in most other performances puzzles as often as it enchants.

The finale also succeeds where previously it failed. It goes at a good clip, with an especially clean rhythmic response from the strings (it can so easily sound scrappy) and a real "crescendo possibile" introducing the scurrying transition to the Big Tune. When that event finally arrives Davis wisely refrains from holding the reins too tightly, while the final buildup and layering of sound is masterly regarding both tempo and balance. Davis brings the movement home like a master pilot landing his plane on a short airstrip: you never have the feeling that the music needs more room in which to come to a stop.

The previous recording of the Seventh Symphony from these forces was much more successful than that of the Third, but it comes (if indeed it's still available) as part of a two-disc set that includes probably the world's slowest and dullest Kullervo Symphony--and however interesting it may be to have the great composer's first and last thoughts in the symphonic medium, that surely is not the coupling of choice. In any event, Davis knows how to present the symphony as a single, organic musical entity. The opening adagio sings solemnly but never heavily, and the principal trombone plays very well when the symphony's "motto" theme finally arrives, though the succeeding section admittedly droops a bit.

Performances of this symphony succeed or fail on the strength of the transitions, and once the tempo picks up after the presentation of the motto theme, matters go swimmingly. The lead-in to the central pastoral episode has particular inevitability and freshness, and while the closing pages are more gently handled than usual, they also never sound disconnected, and this makes the final "amen" far more satisfying and committed than it often turns out. Sonically this is also one of the better efforts from this source, as the somewhat dry acoustic of the Barbican suits the music and what Davis wants to do with it very well, offering clarity but also a coherent ensemble image. I look forward to more Sibelius from these forces. At budget price, this release will be tough to beat.
--David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com


Sir Colin Davis commits another Second to disc, and now shows much greater assurance

What Sir Colin Davis has to say about Sibelius’s Second Symphony hasn’t changed in substance since his first recording with the Boston Symphony, but the paragraphs now flow with ever more assured, Wordsworthian cadences – “Grand in itself alone, but in that breach / Through which the homeless voice of waters rose, / That dark deep thoroughfare, had Nature lodged / The Soul, the Imagination of the whole.” The life-and-death struggle of the second movement is underlined by two alternating tempi which Davis has not contrasted so dramatically before, not even in the quicker concert performance in Dresden. Strong rhythmic underpinnings in the Scherzo, the highly contrasted trio and their eventual assimilation into the mighty onrush towards the finale: these all have a distinctively Beethovenian cast. The finale’s jubilations justify their length and splendour, just about, with some generous portamento and care over the recitatives of the central, quieter section.

The LSO are more attentive than their rivals, including their earlier selves, and while some will retain an allergy to the close Barbican acoustic of all LSO Live releases, I am more bothered by the turbocharged brass and occluded balances of the Philips recording and the soggy RCA engineering.

Pohjola’s Daughter is an unusual but logical coupling, having its origins in the same Italian trip that brought the birthpangs of the Second Symphony. The tone-poem only saw the light five years after the symphony, however, and you could see it as the Yin to the finale’s Yang, moving from the interrupted sonata-form processes of the symphony’s first movement into still darker regions of creative despair – the Fourth Symphony looms on the horizon. You can sense this in Davis’s conception, which prizes coherence over local colour; an exceptionally fine Toscanini disc listed above shows how an underrated Sibelian of another age pulled off many of the same tricks in both symphony and tone-poem.

-- Peter Quantrill, Gramophone [6/2007]
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Works on This Recording

Symphony no 1 in E minor, Op. 39 by Jean Sibelius
Conductor:  Sir Colin Davis
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1899; Finland 
Symphony no 2 in D major, Op. 43 by Jean Sibelius
Conductor:  Sir Colin Davis
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1901-1902; Finland 
Symphony no 3 in C major, Op. 52 by Jean Sibelius
Conductor:  Sir Colin Davis
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1907; Finland 
Symphony no 4 in A minor, Op. 63 by Jean Sibelius
Conductor:  Sir Colin Davis
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1911; Finland 
Symphony no 5 in E flat major, Op. 82 by Jean Sibelius
Conductor:  Sir Colin Davis
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1915/1919; Finland 
Symphony no 6 in D minor, Op. 104 by Jean Sibelius
Conductor:  Sir Colin Davis
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1923; Finland 
Symphony no 7 in C major, Op. 105 by Jean Sibelius
Conductor:  Sir Colin Davis
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1924; Finland 
Kullervo, Op. 7 by Jean Sibelius
Conductor:  Sir Colin Davis
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1892; Finland 

Featured Sound Samples

Symphony no 3: I. Allegro moderato
Symphony no 7

Sound Samples

Symphony No. 1: I. Andante, ma non troppo
Symphony No. 1: II. Andante, ma non troppo lento
Symphony No. 1: III. Scherzo, allegro
Symphony No. 1: IV. Finale, quasi una fantasia, Andante
Symphony No. 4: I. Tempo molto moderato, quasi adagio
Symphony No. 4: II. Allegro molto vivace
Symphony No. 4: III. Tempo largo
Symphony No. 4: IV. Allegro
Symphony No. 2: I. Allegretto
Symphony No. 2: II. Tempo andante, ma rubato
Symphony No. 2: III. Vivacissimo
Symphony No. 2: IV. Finale, allegro moderato
Symphony No. 3: I. Allero moderato
Symphony No. 3: II. Andantino con moto, quasi allegretto
Symphony No. 3: III. Moderato allegro, ma non tanto

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