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CD Review

Jean Sibelius


  • Symphony #1 Op. 39 (1899)
  • Symphony #4 Op. 63 (1911)
London Symphony Orchestra/Colin Davis
RCA Red Seal 09026-68183-2
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It was Colin Davis and the Boston Symphony Orchestra that first introduced me to the sound world of Sibelius. It was actually very early in my immersion into classical music. Up to then it was Beethoven and Mozart with some Haydn and Dvořák. Brahms was still boring to me. But when I picked up the LP of the Sibelius 2nd on Philips, a new world opened up to my ears. I recall sitting in front of the fire in the back room of our small house in Lima, Ohio, with my headphones on, listening to something wholly new to me. It was the first time that I began to realize that composers compose vertically as well as horizontally. I eventually purchased all of the Sibelius Symphonies on Philips. Of them all, however, the Fourth Symphony is my favorite Sibelius Symphony.

What a wonderful pairing, then, this disc is. The opportunity to listen to Sibelius' First Symphony back-to-back with his most enigmatic. What wonderful conducting. Too many interpret Sibelius, especially in the First Symphony, as a Finnish Tchaikovsky. What a wonderful recording. (At least when you read my reviews you don't have to skip to the last paragraph for a summary). Sir Colin Davis is recording what may well become a touchstone for all future recordings of the Sibelius Symphonies.

In the First Symphony there is a grandeur and majesty befitting this symphony. There is no pulling about of tempi for effect. There is no unnecessary underlining of moments. Everything is just right. A friend of mine in Norway shared his opinions of the Finns in regards to how they differ from Norwegians. In effect, he said that the Finns were a product of a history of struggle against domination. First from the Swedes then the Russians. Through it all they developed a sense of pride and dignity that is found in the music of Sibelius. Also, from this environment comes a sense of bleakness that is like the tundra.

What was a revelation to me was listening to the shared atmosphere of the openings of these two symphonies. While a sense of desolation has always come to mind when listening to the 4th Symphony, in this recording Davis foreshadows that very atmosphere where other conductors ruin it by playing it as if it was Tchaikovsky's 7th. The solo clarinet opening of the First Symphony is as chilling as the cello solo that enters at the beginning of the Fourth Symphony. Maestro Colin Davis, in his no nonsense style, finds more meaning in these notes than in his earlier effort, and it was no slouch.

I did some comparisons in the 4th Symphony. They included listening to the London recording with Blomstedt, Herbert von Karajan's on DG, and Stokowski's with the Philadelphia Orchestra in the 30s. Well, I decided to rule out Stokowski's almost immediately. This was because his is still my favorite, but it comes from an era when people played like they do not and perhaps cannot play any longer. The musicians in the 30s, both in the orchestra and on the podium, brought to the playing an insight inherent in the time that is lost. This is not a moral judgment nor an esthetic one, simply an observation. When you hear this recording, or the Beecham recording of similar period, you hear things differently.

So, how about the other two? I have always like the von Karajan, until this session. I have read critiques of his work as legatoising the music to death. I was not really sure what this meant until I made this A/B comparison with Sir Colin (or is it Sir Davis?). There is no doubt that this is a magnificent recording and performance. It has power and the seamless quality of the legato playing provides a rich tapestry. As I listened, however, I got the sense that this same legato approach was sublimating tragedy in the beauty of the sound. The cello solo at the opening, for example, was buried in the orchestral fabric, robbing it of its intensity.

The Davis (let's play with this) recording is much more involving and stimulating. Two thoughts came to mind consistently through the several listenings. One was that the von Karajan portrayed a soul that was alone but not lonely. Sir Colin Davis' soul is lonely and alone. The second concerned the very playing of the instruments. I kept writing, "How does he get the instrumentalists to play like that?"

This leaves the London recording. In interpretation Blomstedt is much closer to Sir Colin Davis than to von Karajan. Like the RCA recording, the London disc has a much more chamber music like quality to it. No legato tapestry here. Still, Davis gets his instrumentalists to play in a way that grabs me by the throat more consistently and more certainly. The London recording is a bit more detailed, in fact you'll need to adjust the volume when listening to the two discs. The London disc needs the volume reduced slightly from what you were using when listening to the RCA, otherwise you will find it uncomfortable.

The insert notes are so-so. They do not provide any discussion of the structure of the symphonies. For that I went to Michael Steinberg's excellent work, The Symphony: a Listener's Guide. It seems to me that LP liner notes tended to provide more detailed overview of a piece of music, like a movement by movement discussion. This is not just recall, however, because I have read insert notes that were taken from the LPs and such an analysis is there. What we have here is a discussion of the history of these two symphonies and a lengthy quote from Constant Lambert's commentary on the 4th Symphony. Frankly, having read it a couple of times I am not sure what the hell Lambert is talking about. He seems to be begging the question. Anyway, we do not buy records for their insert notes, though they make for a nice lagniappe when they are good.

So, I am sure that this will be the disc I most often listen to when wanting to listen to these works by Sibelius. I think you will share that opinion.

Copyright © 1995, Robert Stumpf II