Thursday 5 June 2008

Colin Davis conducts Sibelius

In contrast to some of my previous Sibelius posts, I intend to do something a little different with Colin Davis's recordings of the Sibelius symphonies, not least because he has three (well, nearly three) complete cycles, more than any other conductor I have considered, or, for that matter, full stop. So, unlike, say, Leonard Bernstein, whose two surveys (with the NYPO for CBS and the VPO for DG) I have looked at, or rather will look at, separately, I intend to consider all three together, this makes for a somewhat epic (6000+ word post), so don't say I didn't warn you. Further, instead of working through each one in turn, I intend to work symphony by symphony (i.e. both Kullervos, both firsts, and so on).

Two things should be noted. Firstly, the earliest cycle (with the Boston Symphony Orchestra for Philips) does not feature Kullervo; secondly, the final LSO Live cycle is not yet complete. Symphonies 1 and 4, though they have been performed and recorded, have not yet been issued. I'm not sure why this is the case, perhaps they aren't entirely happy with them or are stringing out the release, I had hoped that by the time I came to this post that would no longer be the case - sadly not. Sod's law dictates that the moment I post this, that will change.

We start, not with the first symphony, but the earlier Kullervo symphony. This is in my view an underrated and underrecorded work. It has appeared just twice in the posts that make up this survey, both times with Vanska (live and on CD). Both Davis recordings are with the LSO. The first, dating from 1996, comes from his RCA cycle and is unfortunately split between two discs. This shows in the moderate pace of the opening. The orchestra play well and in a lightly toned and textured manner, however the recording is a little on the harsh side. The dynamic range is nicely narrow in comparison to Vanska (which works very well in the concert hall but can be more problematic on CD). But where Vanska has a real sense of drive, Davis feels sluggish (the movement runs 4 minutes slower under him). This may seem like an odd complaint, given that in the past I have found fault with the later Davis recording for being too swift. Towards the end he builds some momentum, but finds almost none of the thrilling drama that makes this a favourite of mine, except in the final minute or two. It's a shame the first 14 minutes couldn't have been like this. The second movement is brisker, and Davis's touch still very light. He also brings a degree of humour. There is an intensity and fire to climaxes, but the pace is relatively moderate. In a way this takes me back to the concert hall (albeit that was with Vanska), and there is something rather special about that. Davis seems to be conveying Kullervo's Youth as his growth from childhood to adulthood. The third movement opens relatively briskly. The LSO Chorus are not nearly so precise as Vanska's Helsinki choir and very poorly recorded. Baritone Karl-Magnus Fredriksson is strong as the hero but soprano Hillevi Martinpelto is not as fierce or icy as his sister should be. She is weak also weak, breathless even at times when this shouldn't be. Davis finds a nice energy in the climaxes and is at his most persuasive during the slower, quieter moments. Unfortunately that isn't what this movement turns on, rather the shock and horror of the discovery, after he has seduced her, that she is his sister. He doesn't find this, or any sense of the macabre. In fairness, though, the close of the movement is rather strongly done. There is a strongish opening to the fourth movement, which is moderately paced. And yet I don't feel Kullervo going to war. Things improve dramatically as it progresses and the movement is brought to a powerful close, but Davis still seems a little laid back at times. The chorus are better (or better recorded) in the finale. His reading here is nicely compelling and he builds the tension well. For all that, though, there is something of the drama missing, perhaps Davis's tempo is touch fast, the music needs to be savoured or wrought out more. All in all, then, something of a mixed bag, some very fine parts and some not so fine, that doesn't altogether hang together.

Over a decade later, and Davis returns to the score with the same Chorus and Orchestra, this time live at the Barbican in the first instalment (well, canonically, not the first recorded) of his ongoing LSO Live survey. Again, he takes the opening fairly lightly. In sonic terms I think I prefer this recording (though the too are quite similar and this is also fairly harsh). It's worth noting also that the dynamic range of the recording is quite narrow in comparison to Vanska's. Davis takes quite a brisk pace (this account fits onto a single disc with 8 minutes to spare whereas the LSO reading had to be split). This may be why it feels a little rushed, however it does feel a little more dramatic in this opening movement. But the wonderful sweep that characterises some of his other recordings in this series is absent. Davis brings out some of the richness of the score, but next to Vanska it feels dull. Aside from a swifter tempo it is very similar to the earlier reading, though the movement's close feels a little more subdued the second time around. The opening to the second movement is well played, yet it feels much older than the previous recording, much less delicate and playful and with contrasts much less marked. It doesn't transport me back to the concert hall as the other one did. It almost feels a little by the numbers and only in the final minutes does he find real drama. The third movement is somewhat frantic, and while he vividly creates the sleigh ride, something is lost in the process. The chorus are a little sharper this time round (but not much better recorded). The big themes are spoiled by Davis rushing them. The baritone, Peter Mattei, is weaker than his predecessor and mezzo Monica Group is roughly on a par, i.e. also weak (it's interesting to note that this time round he uses a mezzo, as does Vanska, whereas last time he used a soprano). There is a stronger sense of rhythm and this is a more compelling account of the movement but it loses some of its lustre in the middle and, as with the previous version, there is a lack of shock and awe at the revelation. Kullervo Goes to War is similar, if perhaps a little swifter. Again, it doesn't feel like we're anywhere near the front lines though. Instead things feel rather gay (in the old fashioned sense of the word) and a little banal. The finale still somewhat compelling but the chorus just cannot match the Finns. Davis also doesn't build the tension nearly so well as he did the first time round, though he does find some drama in the final few minutes. The finish is decent, in particular the sense of swirling winds given by the string players. Ultimately, though, neither account is particularly satisfying.

Finally, with the first symphony, comes the first taste of the earliest of the three cycles, that with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Things get off to a good start with a superb clarinet solo. The recording quality is also a cut above what has been heard so far. There is plenty of tension and while the strings may not be icy, as they are for Bernstein in Vienna, there is incredibly beauty and delicacy to their playing. Davis chooses relatively broad tempi. There is a nice sense of sweep, mostly absent from the Kullervos, and excellent attention to detail. It is also a very visual reading and the first movement's finale has plenty of grandeur. He gives the andante a delicate and beautiful opening and again the playing is lovely and from the wind section finely textured (there are icy winds, but somehow slightly alien). Davis build things and judges the climaxes well. He manages a superb juxtaposition of power and haunting beauty. The scherzo starts possibly a little too gently and prettily, and yet there are some wonderful details, but altogether this is rather too smooth for a scherzo. The finale opens slowly and powerfully. Beautiful, chilling and visual to boot. The pace then picks up in a way that belies the timing. There is a real grandeur to the slower moments (in which Davis seems to luxuriate, but without ever losing the thread as Bernstein sometimes does). He delivers some fairly extreme contrasts in tempo but alternates naturally between them. And yet, after all that, the close is slightly underwhelming. Nevertheless, this is a very fine performance.

A few years later and we are back with the LSO on RCA. Interestingly, this is also part of coupling of the 1st and 4th symphonies, a pairing he must be fond of, since that is what it must be assumed is coming from LSO live (since those are the only two outstanding). The recording is decent but dryer. The opening clarinet is fine, but not in the same class as Boston and there is not the same tension. The entry of the strings is warm and a little rough in tone. The delicacy of Boston is absent but there is, perhaps, more sweep and grandeur. The harshness of the recording, which probably wouldn't normally annoy me, grates in comparison. He builds well to the finale and there is decent sense of momentum. The tempo is broader than in the earlier account (and the difference feels more pronounced than the timings would suggest). The playing in the andante is nice enough too, but doesn't seem in the same league as Boston. Davis's judgement of the climaxes is not the same and the textures are somehow blander. Okay, but really nothing special. The scherzo starts more urgently than before and is less pretty but things still feel too smooth for a scherzo and this time round he doesn't find the details as nicely. The finale again starts slowly but less powerfully. The playing seems unremarkable. The tempi don't feel as right as they did in Boston, especially the faster moments, and he doesn't seem to savour things in the same way. The end underwhelms. Round one (or rather two) firmly to Boston, as far as these ears are concerned.

There is, as yet, no LSO Live first, so we are on to the second (the first symphony to feature in all three cycles, indeed, this time round there is a fourth as well) and straight back to Boston. Davis gives a gentle, pulsing opening. There is a rich and lush orchestral sound and a warmth reminiscent of Barbirolli. There are, too, some atmospheric string tones, but tension and drive seem a little lacking. However, as in the first, there is an incredible delicacy at times. The climaxes have a reasonable weight and sweep. The delicate pizzicato at the opening of the andante is rather special and on the whole the playing is beautifully balanced. And yet something is missing: these are sonically beautiful climaxes but without the emotional impact, they don't feel like they've been earned. The tempi feel broader than the timings would suggest. The close is nice enough though. The third movement gets off to a compelling start with some edgier playing. But Davis seems to lose his momentum as things progress and doesn't build very well in to the finale which just doesn't grab me. Where is the tension? The drama? Where are the thrills and the visuals? Despite some lovely playing it is still bland, and while there is power at the close, it doesn't seem to achieve anything. Something of a disappointment after the first.

Davis's next crack at the symphony does not come from any of the cycles, but rather from this live recording with the Staatskapelle Dresden. One caveat needs to be given though: this a 192k mp3 (bought from emusic) that has been burnt to CD, so criticisms of sound quality should be seen in that context. Allowing for this, it seems to be the better recording. There is a wonderful, characteristic, richness to the orchestra, its string tones and colours. Set somewhere between Bernstein's icy cold and Barbirolli's warmth, this is lukewarm, tempi are also middling. There is no shortage of sweep and Davis builds the tension well. The dynamic range is at times not good enough, particularly in the large climaxes. It is a compelling reading of the opening movement, if not always with quite the drive or energy there should be. It some ways, the orchestra actually seems a little too rich in the andante, I would prefer a rawer sound. Starting gently, he brings out much of the beauty of the score, and without Bernstein's largess. Often, however, he seems to be trying for a light touch, which the orchestra doesn't quite seem able to deliver. The MP3 format seems to be restricting the sound the more complex it gets, which is unfortunate. The vivacissimo is something of a mixed bag: the weightier moments are wonderful but the lighter ones don't quite work. As such, the movement lacks the contrasts it should have. A shame, as there is some stunning playing. The build into the finale seems a little rushed, but the movement itself has a pulsing energy and plenty of sweep. Unfortunately, it is once again held back by the sound. He judges when to find relative lightness well and builds momentum strongly into the close, which has a very nice weight to it. This is a compelling and well played reading. Sound quality is the key limitation (and not necessarily all of that is the fault of MP3), but not withstanding that, there is still something missing. It is coupled with okay readings of En Saga and Luonnotar.

The LSO, on Davis's RCA recording also manage to be rich. He takes relatively broad tempi and a delicate approach to the opening movement and while there is some fine pizzicato playing, but I would like more oomph. The reading becomes more compelling into the first big climax and there is some excellent wind playing. The balance of the orchestra is much better than Dresden in this regard. The recording quality also seems good (though that may just be in comparison to the MP3). The andante opens lightly in the way the Dresdeners didn't, or couldn't, deliver. There is some fine playing and Davis builds the tension very well. It is a fairly slow reading but doesn't feel it. The slow passages are slow, but the faster ones are fairly brisk and the changes in tempo are expertly judged, but as a rule he is at his most compelling in the quiet moments. It is also a very visual reading. In short, the movement is played to near perfection. The orchestra are on similarly fine from for the vivacissimo. There is a superb balancing of light and heavy playing. The reading may not be as forceful as it could, but is extremely compelling none the less, most so in the slow, quiet passages. Davis delivers a stunningly powerful build into the finale which brims over with energy and fine playing (especially from the brass). There is sweep and grandeur and from the timing it is a comparatively slow reading, but doesn't feel it, probably due to the great sense of drive and momentum. This is especially true as the builds to the close, which is really quite superb. The deliberate tempo and magical strings contrast wonderfully with the bass line and the final phrases are delivered with near perfect grandeur. This is clearly one to beat.

Davis's 4th and final recording, and his second with the LSO is the most recent issue in the ongoing LSO Live survey. As with many LSO issues, the sound is somewhat dry but the orchestra balance is good. Again, he gives the work a gentle, pulsing opening and there is some fine and delicate playing from the orchestra, though as before I would prefer a little more oomph at times. He makes good use of his pauses and there is a fine sweep. The andante is more of a contrast, with a darker and heavier opening and one which feels slower than it actually is. Davis doesn't build the tension quite so well this time around and the tempo changes don't feel so natural, with the movement feeling a little rushed at times, and the less compelling for it. I would also prefer more weight to the climaxes. The opening of the vivacissimo is light and the contrasts with the heavier moments are not nearly so well judged as they were on the previous recording. The transition to the finale is odd: strong and fast, but rather coming out of nowhere. There is some sweep to the allegro but I would like more and somehow the reading just lacks something. In comparison to the previous one it is fairly dull for the first seven minutes or so, before waking up. There is some nice brass playing, but there should be more drama, more oomph. It is coupled with (or, rather, preceded by) a fine recording of Pohjola's Daughter. For the second, then, the gong goes to the LSO on RCA.

Back to Boston, and this time the second two disc set that makes up the cycle, for the third symphony. Davis takes the opening fairly slowly and the orchestra has a slightly rough edge to their sound, but the playing is compelling. The ensemble is beautifully balanced and there is a good weight to the climaxes. which feel very organic. There is something odd, harsh or sour about the tone of the recording. I want a richer sound, this almost sounds as though there could be something wrong with the hi-fi (but a check on other discs afterwards discounted this). The tempo changes are well judged but the reading doesn't have quite the visual nature that Sibelius can. The slow movement is taken fairly briskly, with light and delicate playing. The result is that it fits better with the allegro than is often the case and it makes for compelling listening. The gentle, quiet start to the finale is spoilt by the poor recording. Davis manages an exiting transition into the allegro, indeed, he goes at quite a lick (perhaps too swiftly). There is plenty of sweep but grandeur has been sacrificed for pace. He creates quite a frenzy leading into the weighty close, though I would like more detail. But the recording seems to get progressively poorer, which is a shame as notwithstanding that it is a compelling performance.

With the LSO there is again a slowish opening, though he soon picks up the tempo, and better recorded sound (though still a little harsh). There is much more energy and drama this time, but the recording doesn't handle the big climaxes at all well. There is grandeur and sweep by the bucket though, the tempi feel well judged and it is a more visual reading than Boston. The light, delicate and slow opening to the second movement fits well with the slower, subtler ending to the first this time. There is plenty of tension and beautiful, lyrical playing. The finale has a similarly slow start and again Davis builds the tension well, but the transition to allegro is not nearly so exciting as in Boston. What is worse, the allegro itself is rather dull and devoid of tension. Lacklustre, most of the time, I see the final notes I've scribbled are "Huh! Frankly!" I don't quite know why he went off the rails at the end, but there you are.

Fortunately Davis and the LSO have since had another crack at it. Now, the problem with discussing this disc is that it is one of the ones that ignited my obsession with Sibelius, so it's harder to be objective. The opening of the first movement is light but more driven and punctuated. There is more energy and the recording quality (surprisingly, as this is an LSO Live issue) seems to be the best of the three. There is a richness to the playing and Davis brings plenty of sweep. Tempo changes are superbly judged, as are the contrasts between light and heavy, and Davis brings and wonderful majesty to the slow moments. He builds and holds the tension well. It is true, though, that the sharp edged and hard driven climaxes that made me fall in love with Sibelius, and this symphony, may not be to all tastes. What I find particularly fascinating (as in many of the other recordings here) is how compelling Davis manages to be when he takes his foot off the accelerator. There is a light touch to the playing of the andante, and yet this is quite a dark reading. The playing is fine, particularly from the winds and the pizzicato playing from the strings, indeed the style is quite clipped generally. The transition into the finale is well judged. After a delicate opening he builds tension slowly, gradually ratcheting up the pace and drama but the slows up for the grandeur and sweep of the main theme. The final bars are thrilling - this is one of my absolute favourite Sibelius recordings (and clearly my pick of the Davis thirds).

Back to Boston and the fourth. Davis gives the work a nice, heavy opening and the sound is better than in the second and third. It is compelling, though perhaps not quite so haunting or dark as I would like. Perhaps a little too lyrical and poetic, which is very nice, but doesn't quite seem to work. It is certainly a very compelling reading though. There is a natural transition into the allegro where Davis brings a lightness of touch to the playing, though somehow things seem weighed down (which I know sounds contradictory), the more so as the movement progresses. It is a dark reading and feels like a descent. The playing is good, particularly from the winds. The transition to the largo is again very natural. In the same vein as the second movement, this too is both gentle and dark and no less compelling, despite what is a fairly slow tempo. At times haunting, particularly some of the string playing, but not so much as I would like but he does find a marvellous sense of bleak inevitability. The transition to the finale is okay. He opens a little too sunnily and joyfully for what has come before but the playing is still both delicate and very fine and the reading still compelling. Davis builds things well so the sunniness doesn't completely jar. The end is not quite as disturbing as it could be. In summary, this is a very fine reading, and yet it is lacking that extra special something, in particular the final movement doesn't quite gel with the rest.

With the LSO the opening feels slower (though, actually, it's fractionally quicker) and is lighter, in both senses. The result is not quite so compelling, although it becomes more so as the movement progresses. Again, he could be darker and more haunting in the opening movement. The recording is also somewhat harsh. The contrasts in the music are much more marked this time round and it is a more visual interpretation. Boston's lyricism and poetry are gone, and something rather unsettling is left in its place. Transitions are much less organic, but this actually seems to fit well. There is none of Boston's lightness in the second movement and it feels even more weighed this time round and not quite natural, claustrophobic almost, in a way that suits the music very well. In Boston there was a sense that Davis was taking us on a descent, there is none of that here, we are down from the very start. Again, the transition into the largo is abrupt, and again fittingly so. He brings a lighter tone than to the preceding movement (and, indeed, this one in Boston) and as with the first movement, while it feels slower this time round (and is when compared to many other readings) he is actually a touch swifter. It isn't haunting, as the movement can be, but this doesn't matter as Davis brings instead a gravity making for an almost resplendent feeling with some powerful climaxes. Given the pattern so far, he then makes a surprisingly natural transition into the finale. In contrast to Boston there is no sun in sight, indeed, in his hands the movement feels almost more like a Mahlerian scherzo, dark and edgy. Even the percussion seems dulled somehow. It is about midway through the movement before any rays of sunlight penetrate and even then they are few and far between. Davis maintains a good sense of drive and makes then end fit in a mundane and troubling way. These are both very fine accounts with a lot to offer, and both surprise me a little, if push came to shove, I think I prefer the LSO musically. I can't wait for the LSO Live issue.

For the 5th, the sound is rather poor again in Boston. Davis makes a gentle, almost lacklustre start. In particular, grandeur and scale are lacking in the big themes. The oomph and sweep that this symphony should be brimming over with aren't there. There is some fine playing but overall the results are a little dull with occasional sparks, such as the harshly captured closing bars, too few and far between. The opening of the andante is delicate, and yet not nearly as lyrical as it could be. Davis brings a degree more drama here, and yet somehow things are still a little cold, the sweep and the visuals still absent. The finale gets off to a brisk start, which would be more encouraging if it didn't jar so badly with what has come before. There is much more energy and excitement than has been the case so far, and yet it's unsatisfying as it doesn't feel earned. Still the Davis sweep is absent and there is little impact to the big climaxes. At one or two points the playing is not quite there. All in all, rather disappointing.

In the studio, the LSO are rather better (though by no means perfectly) captured and the reading is on the whole more compelling. Again, though, more energy, and more weight to the big themes, is wanted; there is still not as much oomph as I would like. There is some decent wind playing, if not quite so fine as might be hoped. Two thirds of the way into the first movement, things really wake up. There is an impressive sweep and scale to the climax and he keeps this momentum through a quite exciting close, though one which could have been a little tighter. Davis takes the andante lightly but much more lyrically than in Boston. Relatively brisk and the lyricism tempered with humour. The movement's close is particularly tender. As before, the finale starts briskly, but this time round it fits better. The finale is slightly slower than before, and improved for it. The Davis sweep is there, so too is a Vanska-like extreme dynamic range, with some impressive extreme piano playing. Indeed, the playing is generally very fine, the strings in particular are electric. Unfortunately he creates for a rather slow burning build up to the close which doesn't quite seem to have the sheer impact it ought to.

The final new entrant to this survey brings the LSO Live 5th. The quality of the recorded sound is good (especially so given this label's problems when it comes to their venue). As on RCA, there is quite a wide dynamic range here too. The wind playing at the start of the movement seems surer and there is drive that hasn't quite been present in the previous recordings. There is a sense of momentum and Davis builds his climaxes much better, there is more tension. He leads in much better to the climax where things caught fire the last time round and makes less of it, but the clipped brass playing makes for an exciting close. Unfortunately, this is tempered by recording quality (of the timpani especially) that is muffled. The andante is his fastest take yet. Played with the same clipped style, there is some fine pizzicato playing but not the humour or lyricism of the earlier LSO effort. Instead this is a rather high octane approach to the andante and rather more quasi allegretto than most. It is relatively compelling though and Davis does find more drama in it this time round. The transition to the finale is very, very unnatural. This has an electric start and doesn't feel as slow as the timings suggest. The Davis sweep is there, but the playing isn't quite (being a little ropey at times). He slows up rather too much about two thirds of the way through, but there is a weight and grandeur to the final few minutes (and he holds his pauses to good dramatic effect). Not outstanding, then, but probably the best of the three.

Davis opens his Boston 6th rather more abruptly and less lyrically than I would like. The recording issues that have been common throughout this set remain. The pacing is rather too brisk and the touch rather too light (as is common with these Philips recordings - which will doubtless appeal to those who prefer that approach). For me, the magic is missing and mainly due to the pace, this is music to be savoured much more. The second movement is similarly lightly played, indeed, it is edgy and almost nervous as a result. The fine playing isn't as compelling as it should be, things feel rushed. The transition into the vivace is abrupt. The clipped phrasing works well and things no longer feel rushed. It is much more like it in terms of a sense of drama too. The finale has some sweep but is still a little too lightly played and fast. Davis builds drama, tension and intensity and there is some superb playing, but why could the first three movements not have been more like this? In the end this is a reading that doesn't convince me.

Things get off to a better start with the LSO account, which opens altogether more lyrically and hauntingly. The recorded sound is preferable too and the orchestra seem better balanced. The tempi are better judged and Davis succeeds in bringing out the beauty of the score. Playing is light but not overly so. There is a sense of magic, tension and drama are better built and the reading has altogether more sense of flow. Similarly the allegretto is weightier, though still a little brisk for my tastes. Playing is fine, and the movement more compelling than in Boston, and yet it could be more so. There is a better transition into the third movement, the orchestral balance is better too and Davis brings out some nice textures. His brisk tempi are largely successful here and he builds superbly to the finale which is weighty, dramatic and with as much sweep as can be found here.

The LSO Live remake is pretty similar in terms of tempi, though a tad brisker. It is better played and recorded (the winds, in particular, are caught better). The playing is lighter (and more in line with Boston) and the result is less compelling. Tension and drama are built much less well. Things improve towards the close of the movement but something is still missing. The second movement is also lighter than I would prefer, it feels too delicate, but the tempo is more moderate than before and the better for it. The transition to the third movement is well done (as, in general, they are in this recording). This too is light, but effectively so, and the style of playing is less finely clipped than before. The finale is, once again, slightly muted next to its immediate predecessor, a lack of heft is part of it, but there is a sparkle missing. Fractionally quicker than the RCA reading (though slower than Boston), Davis's sweep is largely absent. There are some sparks of intensity, but these serve mainly to highlight its absence elsewhere. Despite a nicely played close, I prefer the LSO's first attempt. [One final note, the Amazon reviews of this disc of 5 & 6 would have you believe they are ruined by Davis singing or humming along, despite quite careful listening, I can't pick it up, and a number of reviews elsewhere fail to mention any such.]

Back in Boston, and the staggered opening of the seventh is not so pronounced as some. Davis takes the adagio gently and lyrically, with a tempo that feels neither rushed or sluggish. The playing is good and the recording fine. Things flow well and there is not a hint of the Mahler 9 syndrome (where the work feels like an unconnected series of miniatures in the wrong hands). There are some rather odd string tones though, and in place of grandeur and sweep there is solemnity. The entry of the trombones is effective but I would like them better caught and balanced. The transition into the vivacissimo is very organic, yet the string tones could be icier and there is a want of sweep in the following adagio. As the reading progresses some sections (in particular the allegro moderato) feel a little rushed, the vivace by contrast wants more oomph. The return of the trombones has the same problems as their introduction, only more severely so. Davis is at his most dramatic here, and this is complemented by the least adequate recording quality. Neither the trombones nor the affettuoso section bring the journey's end feel of the best performances but the Bostonians do deliver a very satisfying final few bars.

With the LSO's first effort, the graduation of the opening bars is more pronounced, the recording is better and the reading slightly slower. This time round Davis is not quite so lyrical, instead edgier and more dramatic. There is a sense of sweep from the outset, if only as though from the shadows. There is also a sense of majesty. He builds well to a better captured, and properly balanced, introduction of the trombones. Again, though, the vivacissimo could be more so. But, again, the reading is an organic one. The strings have an icier chill this time and there is much more weight and intensity to the climaxes. The allegro moderato could be more moderate and the vivace could pack more punch and offer greater contrasts. There is a nice, determined acceleration into the presto and the return of the trombones is fine, if a little brisk. As before, he doesn't quite capture the journey's end feel. The crescendo to closing bars is very effective, and yet the close is not quite so well judged as in Boston. As a whole, though, it is a more compelling reading.

For their live remake things are remarkably similar (indeed the timing differs only by around half a minute). The closed Barbican acoustic is more problematic than it has been and the orchestral balance suffers too. There is some nice playing, winds particularly, but not the sweep, flow or majesty of the previous effort. Davis's interpretation is a little juddering in places (and not in a good way). The trombones are disappointing too, some of which is down to poor balancing, but there is also less drama. The reading is more delicate and less compelling, though the transitions remain very organic. Many of my thoughts seem like a broken record - I want more vivacissimo, a better sense of chill to the strings, a more visual reading, more moderato for the allegro (though this attempt has the best judged tempo of the three here), more weight to the vivace, more drama to the presto. The return of the trombones is botched much as their entry and again the sense of journey's end is not what it should be. The first LSO reading is probably preferable here too then.

What of fillers? To start at the end, the LSO Live series has but one, the Pohjola's Daughter (coupled with the second symphony), but while decent, it doesn't really make the disc a must have, which it isn't based on the symphony alone. Indeed, it must be said that some of the LSO Live discs are rather sparsely populated weighing in at well under an hour. Then again, they are cheap. In Boston, Philips have crammed the symphonies onto three discs leaving the 4th free for an excellent violin concerto with the LSO and Salvatore Accardo, but the Finlandia, Tapiola and Swan of Tuonela that go with it, all from Boston, are rather poorer (It's a shame the violin concerto isn't in the set with the first and fourth, or that would be highly recommendable). The RCA set, at seven discs, is loaded with fill-ups. Mostly, as with Rakastava, En Saga, the Lemminkainen Suite, The Bard, Valse Triste and Tapiola these are okay. Pohjola's Daughter and Nightride and Sunrise are better. The Karelia Suite is just weird, oddly constrained both sonically and musically and Finlandia is impressively (not in a good way) bland.

These discs have surprised and somewhat disappointed me. Davis was largely responsible for hooking me into Sibelius, and that may have raised expectations too much. Maybe, too, I've found things more to my taste in some of the recordings discussed previously, and that now, on the return, Davis shines less brightly in comparison. I suspect that listening to different readings (sometimes quite similar) of the same symphony consecutively, though not normally back to back, has made me a little more picky. At his best (the 4th, the LSO studio 6th, the Boston 1st and, of course, the Live 3rd) he takes some beating; but overall, I don't think I'd recommend any of these sets as a complete one. That's not to say any are downright bad, just that one can do better. That said, the LSO does give as comprehensive an introduction as anyone and you can't go too far wrong with it.

As always, the ideal cycle would combine all three (though I'm not sure I would be completely satisfied with that, as might be possible with Bernstein and Mahler, say). Neither Kullervo works for me, Boston win for the first, the LSO (RCA) in the second, LSO Live for the third, I like both 4ths very much and cannot wait for the LSO Live issue, in the meanwhile I'd probably pick the LSO recording, I don't entirely get on with any of the 5th, but if push came to shove I'd take the LSO Live one over the others and the LSO in the studio for both the sixth and seventh and on Philips for the violin concerto (though, in fairness, that only appears in the one cycle).

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