SIBELIUS: Karelia Suite, Op. 11. The Oceanides, Op. 73. Finlandia, Op. 26. Valse triste. Tapiola, Op. 112. Night Ride and Sunrise, Op. 55.
London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Colin Davis, cond.
RCA/BMG 68770 (DDD) (F) TT: 76:51

The novelties here, comparatively speaking, are Night Ride and Sunrise from 1907, midway between the Third and Fourth Symphonies, and The Oceanides, commissioned for a 1914 festival at Newport, Rhode Island. Tapiola, Sibelius' stupendous, monothematic last work for orchestra, is generously documented on discs but hardly ever performed in concert these days. The rest have become pop-concert fodder, verging on cliches.

Sir Colin, the elder (and finer) of Britain's podium Davises, has tended to conduct the same way for more than a decade—how, at the same age, I usually feel first thing in the morning, which is to say sluggish until a coffee-fix starts the engine. His long career on discs, principally for Philips, has been ecumenical in terms of repertory, yet short on personality beyond a dutiful adherence to basic directions in the score. He has conducted and recorded with a goodly number of world-class orchestras including the Boston Symphony, Amsterdam Concertgebouw, and Dresden Staatskapelle. Before becoming principal conductor of the London Symphony in 1995, he'd been recording with them for more than three decades—his new Tapiola on this RCA/BMG disc dates for example from December 1992.

However, Davis' major Sibelius on discs before the '90s featured the Boston Symphony, during his eight-year tenure as principal guest conductor. They recorded the seven numbered symphonies (now digitally remastered by Philips on four CDs in two midprice jewel boxes), plus Tapiola and a handful of shorter works. Those recordings emphasized Symphony Hall's long reverb at the expense of sharp contours and rhythmic incisiveness. Sir Colin in that plush-mush setting struck me as straightforward but faceless by and large, although I've kept a radio tape of the Second Symphony from a Tanglewood concert, when he and the orchestra were memorably fired-up.

The few I've heard of his recent remakes for RCA/BMG withthe LSO (plus Kullervo this time) sounded broader, weightier, slower—overall less persuasive than the Boston versions. On this new CD, almost everything except Night Ride starts arthritically, albeit in the case of Karelia with clarified cross-rhythms. The trouble with Night Ride, though, is a smoggy Sunrise. As for Tapiola—"The Northland's dusky forests,/Ancient, mysterious, brooding savage dreams"—it seems inhabited by Bambis rather than sinister incorporeal spirits. I don't know of any recent version that matches the elemental power of Robert Kajanus and the LSO in their premiere recording of 1932, or Serge Koussevitzky's terrifying windstorm with the Boston Symphony in its prime, still to be remastered for CD. Likewise soft-edged were Karajan's (with the very wrong-sounding Berlin). The second of Eugene Ormandy's two Philadelphia versions (on RCA), and Sir Thomas Beecham's with the Royal Philharmonic on EMI sounded likewise elderly. Only Paavo Berglund's EMI Tapiola with the Philharmonia, when he was younger, compared with the old masters.

Davis' Oceanides lacks Beecham's supple evocation of seawinds and waves on an out-of-print CD including Tapiola. Nothing else builds up steam soon enough, although when Finlandia finally does get moving it makes a virile noise at a brisk clip. No such luck with the early Karelia pieces (the slow movement is interminably po'-faced), or a Valse triste for dancing by the residents of a Florida retirement home. Haunt the cut-out bins.

R.D. (Oct. 1999)