Top Ear

Colin Davis’ Boston Sibelius

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Jeremy Lee writes

Colin Davis’ Boston Sibelius, recorded in the mid-1970s, has been extremely well received critically, though from the surface of things it’s hard to see why.  It’s certainly not the best played of Sibelius cycles–the Boston sound is never as refined as what Seiji Ozawa would extract a few years later with his Mahler recordings, and in terms of precise ensemble or solid sonority Davis pales against Maazel’s Vienna Philharmonic which delivers a steadier sound while retaining a similarly rough edge.  Intensity-wise it can’t be compared to Bernstein or Karajan (the end of the Fifth says it all), and in terms of interesting or distinctive ideas, well, there aren’t many.  The recorded sound is as good as any, but it’s hardly audiophile, and if you buy the Collector’s Edition 5CD box, it’s hardly value for money especially when so many other cycles (Barbirolli, Berglund, Segerstam I, etc.) are available for half the price.

So why do I deem it as one of the most persuasive and must-hear Sibelius cycles ever recorded?  First and foremost, Davis never fails to capture the Sibelian spirit, and he does this through simply being unfailingly musical.  Freshness and vivacity is to be heard everywhere.  Take the scherzos as a case in point:  most of them feature an extremely quick surface-level meter so that the listener instead hears the hypermeter–one beat per bar–that rests above it, and while most other conductors are frantically hurrying the music through, Davis allows this underlying rhythmic pulse to give the bouncy impact that is due, making it sound bumptious and cheerful as opposed to manically fast.  Furthermore, Davis keeps the pulse of the music steady, but is never stiff and allows ample rubato where due, resulting in seamless tempo changes especially in the particularly difficult-to-judge rubati in the Seventh as well as the macro-accelerando and macro-ritardando of the outer movements of the Fifth.  Davis also never shies away from the dramatic elements that the music often features:  sample the ending of the Seventh symphony where Davis encourages the strings to dig deep into their bows with almost unprecedented brutality.  With the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and as with Maazel’s Vienna Philharmonic, Davis extracts a wind-heavy sound that further enhances the acerbic quality of Sibelius’ writing, but he also gives the strings their full sonorous due, such as the mighty adagios of the First and Second symphonies.  Relentlessly soulful and musical is the pervading aftertaste that this cycle has left me, and which I hope other listeners would feel as well.

What I find most impressive is how Davis is able to communicate all this through retaining a simplistic view of the music that never for once borders into excess.  We can fault most other approaches for being, in some way or another, excessive:  Maazel is excessively brutal at times, Segerstam I is excessively smooth, Davis II (the RCA remake) is excessively ponderous, Bernstein is excessively…excessive (to say nothing about Celibidache at this point).  The simple yet unfailingly ingenious music Sibelius gives us is, for good or for worse, distorted under their interpretative lens.  In contrast, Davis, through good old musicality, lets Sibelius’ genius shine through a crystal-clear lens, and lets all facets of the music–the soaring melodies, the primordial terror, the pictures of the vast Scandinavian landscape, the poignant aftertaste of saudades–speak for itself.  In the same way as how Deryck Cooke praised Haitink’s Mahler 9th, I feel that the aptest description to describe the Sibelius that we can hear in these four/five discs is not Bernstein’s Sibelius, not Karajan’s Sibelius, not Maazel’s Sibelius, not Blomstedt’s Sibelius, nor is it even Davis’ Sibelius–but rather Sibelius’ Sibelius.  And I suppose that’s the highest praise that I can give.


Vol. 1:

  • Album name:  Sibelius:  The Complete Symphonies Vol. 1
  • Performers:  Sir Colin Davis (conductor);  Boston Symphony Orchestra
  • Label:  Philips 446 157-2
  • Sonics:  Stereo ADD
  • Total playing time:  2:34:22

Vol. 2:

  • Album name:  Sibelius:  The Complete Symphonies Vol. 2
  • Performers:  Sir Colin Davis (conductor);  Boston Symphony Orchestra
  • Label:  Philips 446 160-2
  • Sonics:  Stereo ADD
  • Total playing time:  2:25:48

Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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