> SIBELIUS Symphonies 5,6 Davis 4681982 [PL]: Classical CD Reviews- June2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Symphony No 5 in E flat major, Op 82 (1919) [32.06]
Symphony No 6 in D minor, Op 104 (1923) [24.33]
Tapiola, Op 112 (1925) [17.54]
Boston Symphony Orchestra, cond. Sir Colin Davis
recorded 1975 (Op 82) and 1977 (Op 104/112), ADD
PHILIPS CLASSICS 468 198-2 [74.32]


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Now that Sir Colin Davis’s later RCA digital set of the Sibelius symphonies with the London Symphony Orchestra is being re-released at mid-price, his earlier Philips analogue set with the Boston Symphony Orchestra is being offered at throw-away prices. And make no mistake: you get well-planned couplings, well-filled discs and performances which (with a few trifling exceptions) are as revealing as any.

I suppose it’s tempting to talk of a Sibelius ‘tradition’ at Boston, chiefly on account of Koussevitsky’s time there before the war. But that was a long time ago – it’s most unlikely, I suppose, that any of Koussevitsky’s players played in these Davis recordings! – and none of Munch, Leinsdorf or Ozawa seems to have had a particular empathy with Sibelius. Even so, you have to admit that the orchestra sounds as if this music is in their blood: it’s impressively sure-footed playing, and strikingly idiomatic in both colour and character.

The differences between these 1970s recordings and those Davis made in the late 1990s are subtle, and generally concern matters of detail. If anything, the later versions are tauter, more spontaneous: in most cases, they are distinguished by a stronger sense of overview, but without ever sacrificing attention to detail. However, the earlier readings are in the main exceptionally fine, and remain competitive.

By common consent, the Fifth was not typical of the best of the Boston cycle: for all its many excellent qualities, it’s a rather studied reading compared with the more atmospheric LSO version. Although the recording sounds well in a number of ways, the lack of space (of ‘air’ in the studio) may be said to rob the music of its ability to ‘speak’, or to evoke the extra-musical imagery I know many listeners enjoy in this music.

The Sixth was recorded at a later session and is, by any standards, superb: the string playing in the all-important opening pages is sumptuous, and the sense of organic growth throughout is compelling. The LSO/RCA version may be more expansive, but it is no more persuasive.

As you would expect from a charismatic conductor like Davis, Tapiola is both powerful and evocative. However, the rather close balance of the strings, with winds placed well behind, means that some orchestral detail is less clear than it might be. By comparison, Ashkenazy’s Kingsway Hall recording for Decca (his is an obvious rival at this price, and it’s digital) is more open, spacious and resonant: inevitably, the music has more impact, and even more atmosphere.

These are recommendable versions, then, but there are better available. An irritating point on which to end: there are no notes whatsoever, just ‘trailers’ for other Philips Classics and Eloquence releases – this really is inexcusable!

Peter J Lawson


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