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Sibelius: Symphonies 5 & 7 - Davis

Sibelius: Symphonies 5 & 7 - Davis

PentaTone RQR  PTC 5186 177

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral


Sibelius: Symphony No. 5 in E flat Op. 82, Symphony No. 7 in C Op. 105, Symphonic Poem "En Saga" Op. 9

Boston Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis (conductor)

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Review by John Miller - May 15, 2008

When first conducting his Fifth Symphony in 1915, Sibelius had a newly-formed orchestra of 50 players. If only he could have heard the Koussevitzky-trained Boston Symphony play it for him! Pentatone have lovingly resurrected the Phillips quadraphonic tapes from 1975 and set them down in DSD with great success. Colin Davis' first Sibelius cycle with the Bostonians and Phillips has rightly become a classic, and is notably better than his later repeat under RCA.

The Fifth is above all a nature symphony, as attested by the many diary entries left by Sibelius during its composition. Its gentle dawning horn call leads us into the icy vastness of the Scandinavian taiga forest. Many tiny motives and changing moods recall birdsong, wind and rushing water. The first movement expresses bleak mysticism and sinister solitude, and Davis brings out this darkness more than many other conductors, so that the final bursting into sunlit radiance is all the more moving when it comes upon us. His slow movement is beautifully played, plaintive and slightly reserved rather than larded with sentimentality, and the finale takes off swiftly, scurrying strings making their tremolos feather-light. At the point where all the strings are sub-divided into many parts and play pianissimo, the new recording magically reveals everything of this ravishing texture. Finally, the Swan Hymn makes its full appearance, recalling a brief moment on one of Sibelius' walks when a skein of 16 swans flew overhead. "One of my greatest experiences! My God what beauty!" he wrote in his diary, and so was born the gently swinging horn theme which blazes forth at the stunning climax of this symphony. Note that there are no grace-notes from the tympani leading to the final two hammer-blow chords. These were present in early versions of the symphony, and these days many conductors restore them for their added dramatic impact.

In the Seventh Symphony Davis again displays his ability to fuse the motivic elements into a gradually evolving organic whole. He gives a spacious and tension-laden reading which belies the highly compressed one-movement structure of this miraculous symphony. It begins as if narrating another epic based on the Kalevala and soon scowling basses lead the whole string section into a rise-and-fall ostinato which sounds like the great melt-fed rivers surging across the landscape at spring thaw. Near the conclusion, Davis throws the orchestra into another gear, tension piling up to final release of the C major ringing theme on the horns and trombones which carries us home.

It is at these climactic moments where I have some reservations about both the playing and recording. In both symphonies, the brass, particularly horns and trumpets, are quite forward and rather airless. They also can produce quite coarse tone, particularly the trumpets, which are raw-sounding where burnished and majestic timbres are called for. The woodwind are also quite forward, and the front to back perspective of the orchestra is not particularly convincing. I felt rather let down by the rasping brass at these crucial points, but the otherwise superb playing and interpretations would not deter me from listening to these readings quite frequently. The new DSD presentation also reveals a fair amount of Colin Davis crooning; sometimes a little distracting but a feature one grows accustomed to. It also has a wonderfully deep and sonorous bass line.

These issues of brass tone and orchestral perspective are dispelled completely by the very fine tone poem En Saga, which was recorded in 1980. Sound, playing and conducting here are just wonderful, and make me wish for Pentatone to release more of their early Davis cycle.

Sibelius fans will not only want this disc of Davis/Boston/Phillips, but more from the Pentatone Sibelius archives.

Copyright © 2008 John Miller and HRAudio.net

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Comment by Waveform - June 24, 2016 (1 of 8)

THE BEST SIBELIUS ALBUM EVER!

The 4.0 surround sound - commonly called "Quadraphonic system" - was very popular among the artists, producers and engineers during 1969-1981. There were four loudspeakers in each corner of the room. No front centre channel or alternative low-frequency channel (subwoofer). This fine innovation was the first attempt to offer surround sound for the audiophiles. But the whole system was very expensive. And it was almost impossible to reach flawless sound.
Things radically changed in 1999 when Sony and Philips Electronics introduced a Super Audio CD (SACD). Now there was finally a format which supported the 4-channel sound. The Dutch record company Pentatone has re-released nearly 100 quadraphonic recordings from the catalogues of Philips Classics and Deutsche Grammophon.
The symphonies on this disc were recorded in 1975 at the Boston Symphony Hall. The producer was Vittorio Negri which was specialized for this 4-channel surround sound. The whole cycle was originally recorded with 8-channel tapes.
Davis's interpretation of Sibelius's Symphony No. 5 is the best what I have ever heard! His passionately admiration came clear even at the beginning. The gentle sound of the horn lull the listener into the magical world of this work. Everything moved forward without forcing and transitions between harmonies and sections happened in a balanced way. The simplicity of the second movement was never naïve or lazy. Davis's calculation of the finale (8'01") might be stressful for someone. But strangely the atmosphere wasn't restless.
Symphony No. 7 was even better. Simply the most beautiful reading ever! Peaceful, smooth, playful and dramatic. The hymn-like melody of strings was very touching here. And the important melody of the first trombone sounded clearly above the texture.
As a bonus we are able to enjoy symphonic poem "En Saga" Op. 9. This impressive work was recorded five year later in 1980. The producer was Wilhelm Hellweg. Terrific performance with powerful climaxes.
The brand new DSD remastering brought real revelations. Listen to the fresh sound of the cymbals in "En Saga"! Or the sturdy sound of the brass! The original quadraphonic sound didn't increase the surround speakers. A realistic 3-dimensional surround sound, then. Sensational stuff, absolutely. Pentatone, please, PLEASE! Release the rest of Davis's Sibelius cycle on SACD! According to this short whiff the other albums will be terrific listening experiences. I can almost see a swan on the cover and the following text: "JEAN SIBELIUS: SYMPHONIES NOS. 1 & 4, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Sir Colin Davis, PENTATONE REMASTERED CLASSICS". This could be the first album of the next year's bunch.

Comment by hiredfox - June 30, 2016 (2 of 8)

This disc as far as I know is the only SACD transcription of SCD's early Boston survey which set the benchmark for Sibelius symphonies until his mid 90's LSO survey emerged, which surpassed it in every way enjoying the benefit of patience and thoughtfulness that comes from more mature years. His final SACD set again with the LSO disappointed partly because it was compiled from live recordings made at subscription series concerts but also as many reviewers at the time suggested - rather rudely - that they were tired performances (presumably from a fading maestro).

As a matter of fact The Kertesz set on Decca with the Vienna Philharmonic has always been my preferred choice over Davis - the set with those wonderful Pieter Breugel paintings - but puzzlingly only one disc from that survey has made it to SACD as well - the First on Esoteric. Listen to that one, it will knock your socks off!

This decade of the 21st century is not being particularly kind to Jean Sibelius, there seem to be very few new recordings whilst concert performances are becoming rarer certainly in my western European neck of the woods, the fickle winds of fashion aye?

Comment by Graham Williams - July 1, 2016 (3 of 8)

To hiredfox:


Kertesz never recorded the Sibelius Symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic, they were conducted by Lorin Maazel.

It was the Kertesz set of Dvorak Symphonies that had the covers with the Breugel paintings.

Comment by William Hecht - July 2, 2016 (4 of 8)

My goodness John, how much more could you expect on disc? We have two complete symphony sets on BIS (the disc containing 3,6,&7 with Vanska/Minnesota is due for UK release on July 29), Storgard's set on Chandos rbcd, Rattle's bluray set with the BPO, and Lintu's bluray set with the FRSO, three complete Lemminkainens, two on sacd, the violin concerto on Chandos, and more, all released since 2010. It's true that in concert the pickings are pretty slim, but since health issues prevent me from concert going I have to be content with spending the money on discs and enjoying myself at home. Happy listening.

Bill

Comment by hiredfox - July 12, 2016 (5 of 8)

Graham, you are absolutely correct of course, Kertesz with the LSO!

Rather more than a senior moment... now where did I put my cocoa?

Comment by hiredfox - July 12, 2016 (6 of 8)

Hi Bill.

As you can tell from my earlier comment June 30, 2016 clearly did not include my finest hour! Announcement of the completion of the Vanska/Minnesota set came a little later so I felt unable to reference it at that time. Vanska's 1 and 4 combination was/is absolutely wonderful and arguably the best yet on disc. :-)

John

Comment by William Hecht - July 13, 2016 (7 of 8)

We all have those days, John, and at almost 70 I'm having them more often. I never thought I'd "get" the 4th until I heard the Minnesota/Vanska recording. Now it's the Sibelius I listen to most frequently, no tunes to hum like the 2nd or 5th, but so profound.I'm eagerly awaiting the final disc in the series (hoping for the completion of the Sudbin Beethoven concerto set as well, pity we no longer have Robert around to give us a hint here and there).

Bill

Comment by Waveform - July 18, 2016 (8 of 8)

Hello everybody!
Great news! PENTATONE answered in LinkedIn: "Hi Luukas. Yes, next year more exciting titles! :)"
More RQR albums, then. Hopefully the rest of this marvelous Sibelius cycle will be among them!