Sibelius: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 4

London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Colin Davis (LSO Live SACD LSO0601)

14 December 2008 4 stars

Sibelius Symphonies 1 & 4Sir Colin Davis' Sibelius cycle with the London Symphony Orchestra on their own label has been built up at a leisurely pace over the last few years and this release of the First and Fourth Symphonies brings it to a close.

Davis' pedigree as a conductor of Sibelius is second to none; his two other complete cycles – on RCA again with the LSO and his earlier Boston Symphony Orchestra set on Philips – are solid recommendations but this new cycle, half of it available on SACD and at LSO Live's bargain price, might well overtake them both.

The conductor's enormous experience – he's had over half a century at the forefront of musical life – and evident rapport with the orchestra, whose president he is, manifests itself in a natural, unihibited manner with much of this music. He is not, it seems, out to prove a point nor to draw attention to himself but, rather, to bring out the best in his players and to communicate the essence of the music. As a result, he doesn't get itchy feet in the moments of relative stillness, as in the more frosty landscapes of the fourth's Il tempo largo (taken at a daringly slow pace) and opening Tempo molto moderato, quasi adagio. He is happy enough to produce music-making that is atmospheric without the need to drive forward, and the same goes for the opening of the first, where principal clarinet Andrew Marriner is left to muse unhurriedly (and beautifully) in his opening solo.
However, when Sibelius piles on the tension or, in the First Symphony in particular, the passion, Davis is willing to match him step for step and is not afraid to turn the screw. When the First Symphony's opening movement gets underway it is impassioned and impetuous; although Sibelius was already in his thirties when he produced it, Davis reminds us it's the product of a young man. Initially the string sound is a little thin and the harp seems rather prominent, but the brass are captured with remarkable warmth, and the dancing woodwind with excellent clarity. The movement's climaxes are built up with feverish intensity and mastery, and if Davis's flexibility with the pulse might worry some, for me it's all part of his fluid, unbuttoned way with the work.

The Andante is brimming with emotion – and some wonderful solo work from various members of the LSO – and the clear textures Davis produces are embellished with his characteristic vocalizations, albeit less noticeably than is often the case. Rarely has the Tchaikovskian poetry and passion of this movement been so clearly expressed on the surface, nor the yearning melancholy of its reflective passages. There's much of the same in the final two movements. The Scherzo rattles along with an implacable sense of purpose and its slow middle section is lusciously done, featuring outstanding work from the LSO horns and principal flute, Gareth Davies. We move on, with the briefest of pauses, to an outstanding account of the tricky finale, which marshalls the qualities of the performance into the service of Sibelius' dark, stormy vision.  

The fourth is a very different work but Davis produces a reading, again helped by outstanding playing from the LSO, that is every bit as fine. As well as the finely nuanced accounts of the slower movements, the final Allegro finds just the right balance between warmth and objectivity; it swells irresistibly at the climaxes but longer build-ups are handled with patience, capturing the composer's sound-world in all its disconcerting beauty.

For those collecting the cycle, this final instalment will be self-recommending. For anyone else, it represents a fine bargain, capturing performances that would be recommendable at any price.

By Hugo Shirley