Symphonies 1 & 4 – London SO/Davis (1994, RCA)

Symphony No.1 in E minor, Op.39
Symphony No.4 in A minor, Op.63

London Symphony Orchestra
conducted by Sir Colin Davis

RCA Victor Red Seal (BMG Classics) 09026-68183
[77:40] full-price

by The Inkpot Sibelius Nutcase™

These are unusual couplings of two of Sibelius’ most different symphonies. Symphony No.1, composed in 1899, seems to take up the last reins of the Romantic century and cast with unimaginable force into the churning pools of the 20th; Symphony No.4, completed in 1911, was greeted with enigmatic silence at the end of its concert premiere, demonstrating how far the composer had traversed.

Sir Colin takes a slightly slower pace than Vänskä (on BIS – reviewed here) in the first movement, and he is more immediately convincing in the moulding of phrases: praise must go to the handling of the powerful jagged trumpet theme [track 1: 3’10” and 8’57”] – I have rarely heard it performed with such passion, drive and musical phrasing. Davis slows down as the trumpets soar, so that the triplet drops with great drama. These are the high points of the performance – beyond this, the reading is assured.

In the Andante, the opening string theme floats beautifully. Again the rendition is very fine if slightly wanting in momentum in the middle. The phrasing does get a bit rigid occasionally, but otherwise there are little technical complaints.

Sibelius photographed in 1889 What I don’t like about this performance is that it doesn’t offer anything new to say – in fact, it is a very conservative (meaning not trying to be revolutionary) interpretation, which adds considerably to its appeal to newcomers to the work.

Vänskä’s Scherzo is furious and sharp, even merciless. The RCA version is again more leisurely – at times the slower pace makes the music brim with power, but often it just seems too draggy for me. In the Finale for example, Sir Colin’s performance is again very traditional. The fast sections are effective but lacks the sense of rush found in say the Karajan or Iceland Symphony version. The slow sections work well, as in the yearning, angst-ridden slow melody near the end, bursting with emotion. It is here that the intensity of the London strings come across better than the cooler tones of the Lahti Symphony.

Indeed this is generally a very safe recommendation, whereas the more characterful Vänskä reading may shock some. Conversely, for an incorrigible nutcase like me, I don’t feel the urge to listen to this version since it has nothing much which is interpretatively interesting (except that first movement trumpet) or insightful. (I ask for too much, but I am the Nutcase).

Sir Colin’s performance of the Fourth Symphony with the Boston Symphony Orchestra on Philips (the whole cycle has been reissued on two pairs of Philips Duos, but suffers from bad recording and horrible brass braying) was one of the first of this symphony which finally “spoke” to me, after many years of not really “understanding” it.

His new recording is also good, although I find it less convincing than Vänskä’s on BIS. The RCA performance does not quite have the overall unity of the Lahti Symphony’s, and I thought perhaps the somewhat two-dimensional sound of the RCA recording (this is also evident in the rest of the cycle so far) may have contributed to it. The result is that sometimes there is a certain distracting “flatness” in the sound reproduction – all the instruments seem to come like a wall of sound. Sometimes this helps, as in the string sections where interesting textures are revealed. Detailed as it is, the RCA sound is not as “natural” as Vänskä’s, but it is still good nonetheless.

Both CDs are worth their price – but BIS has the far superior production, including the notes. If you’re not sure, then at least buy the RCA version, since BIS CDs are not readily available in Singapore (see below). Some may be encouraged by the fact that the former disc (Sir Colin’s) has been awarded a 1997 Gramophone Award in the Orchestral category.

Sibelius in his old age In the final movement of the Fourth, the opening is in a cheery, almost carefree manner, complete with glockenspiel parts (Sir Colin uses both the glockenspiel and tubular bells, as a solution to the controversy over the part’s instrumental allocation). In the midst of its development, the music seems to inevitably shift towards darkness, ending in chords of resignation, almost of exhaustion.

Sibelius (left) called his Fourth Symphony “a protest against present-day music. It has nothing, absolutely nothing of the circus about it.” It is a revolutionary work of the highest intellectual skill fused with a natural kinship with the possibilities of tonality, both in terms of music and of the emotions. Written in the aftermath of a throat operation to remove a tumour, it has been said that in it Sibelius had struggled with the notion of mortality.

The musical material of the symphony is based primarily on the tritone (i.e. a three tone interval), known in medieval times as “The devil in music.” First heard in the growling, sombre opening motif (C-D-F#-E), it is developed concisely in a symphony of almost unrelenting economy. By this, musicologists mean that the “material” (e.g. a motif) is literally “grown” or argued (as in, one takes a topic and argues about it to convince someone) with precision and without anything unnecessary or extraneous (hence, you do not beat around the bush, or use unnecessary material that does not “fit” into the scheme of things.) In my own words, Sibelius can say more in 20 minutes than most composers in 2 hours.


Symphonic Poem for Soprano, Baritone, Male Chorus and Orchestra, Op.7

An Inktroduction by the Inkpot Sibelius Nutcase™

Sibelius in 1920

Imagine for a moment you live in a country completely unknown for any significant, original musical culture other than, say, an ancient heritage comprising folksongs passed down through the ages. Then suddenly, within some humble concert hall, a local composer conducts a work which somehow creates a single spark of cultural identity which flares and explodes an entire nation’s soul into the being of cultural self-awareness. Continue reading Kullervo