Fantastic music, good but not great performances
MR P FITTON | Oldham, Manchester UK | 06/08/2004
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Although an admirer of Sir Colin Davis - I especially love his LSO Live Bruckner recordings - I've always found his Sibelius a bit hit and miss. This new CD is a typical example: there are some very fine things here but there are also occasions when Davis is simply wide of the mark.We start with the criminally underrated 3rd Symphony. Am I alone in thinking that the glorious first movement is one of Sibelius's very finest compositions? Davis starts and finishes the movement very well and overall it's one of the better recordings of this frequently botched piece, but around the middle there are some rather muddled passages and some melodic
lines and embellishments are renderred rather meaningless as a result. Contrast with Leaper on Naxos where every note makes perfect sense and the sensation of building excitement and tension is exhilarating. Davis also has a tendency to slow things down at key moments, thus dissipating the power of the piece slightly.The second movement - which I have to confess I can take or leave - is played fairly slowly but effectively, although the intended yearning, lilting quality doesn't quite come off properly somehow.On the other hand the first "scherzo" part of the Finale is done extremely well. In fact I've never heard it sound better. Davis brings real magic to the fragmentary lines and phrases that weave around each other before finally resolving into the finale proper (which is also done very well). Superb.Sibelius's 7th is probably my favourite piece of music of all time. Why this masterpiece has never been accorded its rightful place in history as one of the three most important orchestral works of the 20th Century - with La Mer & the Rite of Spring - is beyond me. Much has been said about the way the conventional symphonic movements are woven effortlessly into one single movement, but what is just as remarkable is the equally effortless way Sibelius manages to combine romanticism, classicism and modernism into one unified whole that renders such terms redundant. Oh and it's strikingly beautiful.So what of Davis's latest version? Well, it's ok. The opening adagio is played well, if a little slowly for my tastes. The gorgeous hymn section therein is handled with much poise and no lack of feeling, but for sheer expressive beauty it falls a fair way short of Leaper on Naxos. The rest of the symphony is done well enough (although both the strings and woodwind could do with a bit more weight at times) and this is certainly a perfectly good reading. However it can't really be ranked alongside the greatest versions - Leaper on Naxos, Maazel on Decca, Segerstam on Chandos, Karajan on DG, Berglund on EMI, Leaper on Arte Nova et al. Overall you can't really go wrong here - particularly if you want both of these great works on one disc - but more distinguished versions of both symphonies are available, even at this price.I've given 4 stars but 3 and a half would probably be more appropriate."
* * * 1/2, Third misses; Seventh has some grand moments
John Grabowski | USA | 08/24/2005
(3 out of 5 stars)
"Colin Davis must really love the symphonies of Sibelius, judging by how many times he's recorded them. (Many conductors go their entire careers and never touch the works.) This disc is part of his third set, the first being the beautifully-played and naturally-recorded cycle with the Boston Symphony back in the late 70s for Philips, the second being lackluster performances with a scrappy-sounding London Symphony just a few years ago for RCA. Perhaps he was as disappointed with the RCA set as I was, and wanted one more crack before he laid down his baton. If so, these are a decent go-around overall, but Sir Colin is competing with his own ghost, and the ghost wins in the form of Philips. Overall, that is. There are still virtues in the present disc, almost all of them residing in the Seventh.
The Third is played well enough, with Davis lovingly teasing out the phrasing and lavishing lots of careful detail on every line, with a very slow, very deliberate build that's measured in microns. Problem is, I think the piece is Sibelius' most quicksilver, and doesn't lend itself well to this sort of view. I am reminded of the contrasting "Thirds" of Sibelius and Mahler. Sibelius advocated a compact, efficient sound world, while Mahler felt the symphony must embrace the universe. Davis misses Sibelius' economy here, and what he does instead does not come off well to me, especially in the second subject of the second movement, where he tries to be "spiritual" and stop time and instead only loses the buoyancy and makes the piece sag. The finale has some fiery passion that's missing from the Philips account, and that is welcome, but overall, the conception here does not hold together well for me.
The Seventh too suffers somewhat from the sum not being up to the parts. I agree with reviewer P Fitton that this is one of the greatest works of the 20th century, on a par with La Sacre and La Mer. And R. Fill "ryzzard" does a fine job of trying to describe this nearly indescribable music. For me, the emotional and technical gamut this work runs in just over 20 minutes is just amazing, yet Sibelius makes it sound so effortless. We never sense the hard work that went into this symphony, and it's easy to listen superficially. The unity is astonishing--the almost imperceptible tempo shifts, the changes in rhythm that are sublimated to the whole organic structure. The brevity is equally amazing: every gesture builds the whole, and you truly can't cut one bar or ignore one detail. As an excellent essay on Thte Flying Inkpot's website says, the symphony is "a single stretch of music completely based on the development of a single theme or motif." Well said. Davis frustrates me by disrupting that singularity, unnecessarily speeding up the tempo at times. It's presumably to build drama, but the piece, if you work the details right, doesn't need that kind of "help." I disagree with P Fitton (is that anything like P Diddy?) that the strings and winds need weight. The LSO's strings are a bit toneless these days (listen to them back in the glory days of the Previn 70s to see how far they've fallen), but I don't think weight here is the problem, but rather a mastery of the architecture, and here Davis, despite being in the twilight of his career and this being his third go at this work on record, falls somehow short, with some of his choices of technique seemingly arbitrary and even against the grain of the music. Then, after trying to up the excitement with tempo jerks and a gradual thickening of texture, he gets to the great moment where for the first time SILENCE hangs over this symphony--it's where the orchestra stops except for the violins, which play one note (which emerges out of the previosu phrase they played), pause, play it again with a different inflection, pause, and play it again with a different inflection. At least, with a truly great interpreter it's a different inflection each time, and it is THE climactic moment. It sends chills down my spine just writing about it. Here all three "moments" are done too lightly, to my taste. This is the point where, when I heard this work performed with Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic in San Francisco two years ago, I turned in my third-row seat and saw the audience frozen like statues, leaning forward, eyes open, riveted. Rattle had them in the palm of his hand and he knew it. Davis misses the moment.
On the whole, though, this Seventh is better than his last two attempts, but I feel he will leave the earth not having left us with a Sibelius Seventh that really pierces the score with insight. Oh well... For what it's worth, I've never found a Sibelius Seventh on disc that completely works for me (having heard Karajan, Bernstein, other Davises, Barbirolli, Berglund, Maazel, Ormandy, (Kurt) Sanderling, Mravinsky, and Sakari, off the top of my head). This truly is music that, to use Schnabels' expression, is greater than it can be played.
The sound here overall is very good. I don't have the SACD and so can't comment there, but the tradtional CD sounds good enough to me. As it typical with these recorded-in-concert discs, mike placement is up close and personal, but we don't feel swamped. In some ways, the sound almost reminds me of the Philips set, and that is high praise. I would say this CD is worth checking out. Whether it's worth keeping in light of the competition is hard to say. I'm holding onto mine for now, but will it survive my next cut to reclaim shelf space? Time will tell."
A memorable Seventh from the aging Colin Davis
Santa Fe Listener | Santa Fe, NM USA | 08/05/2007
(4 out of 5 stars)
"As someone who heard him from the beginning, it's hard to imagine Colin Davis turning 80. Aging conductors are inevitably variable in their interpretations, and Davis has become slower, more mellow, less inclined to discipline his musicians to observe the niceties of the score. But when he's on, decades of experience express themselves with a simple, almost instinctual rightness. I feel that's true here of his intensely felt and very musical Sibelius Seventh.
In his review below Mr. Grabowski hits everything on the nose, and I particularly agree that Davis's attempt to make the Third Sym. more profound only serves to make it sluggish. But in the Seventh I don't hear the jerked around, arbitrary tempo changes that Mr. G. complains about. If anything, Davis is trying for one long unbroken span, and therefore he smooths out some of the tempo contrasts called for by the composer --if you like spiky Sibelius, avoid this CD. Anyway, Davis isn't a champagne conductor anymore; he's ruby port aged in the barrel. If you appreciate that seasoned flavor, here you have it with lots of woody overtones and a nostalgic sense of time's waning."