British critics are slavish admirers of Colin Davis's Sibelius, and this CD is touted as a Gramophone Selection of the Month. I began listening with doubts, since to my ears Davis's Sibelius can be stodgy and uneventful. However, it's hard to resist the utterly clear and natural sonics that the LSO Live engineers deliver, far better than anything Davis got form Philips or RCA/BMG his first two times out--this is his third complete Sibelius cycle.
As for the interpretation, it's patient and measured, but with lots of inner detail and great pacing for effect. I don't know if Davis has become a master or if I am simply more tolerant of his understated style. Barbirolli brought a similar measured individuality to the Sibelius Second in his famous recording (Chesky), but he was more emotional and rhythmically free than Davis. Davis doesn't give us much drama from moment to moment (The Gramophone turns this lack into a virtue, claiming that it's all about long-term buildup and architecture), but the LSO musicians play beautifully, and the engineers keep up the sexcellent sound.
Is there a great buildup to a cathartic climax? In the first movement I'd say yes, although Bernstein is more hair-raising and Karajan more grand. English restraint still counts for a lot in Davis's style--the second movement doesn't pull you back and forth as violently as it could, but the orchestral sound is deep and rich. The Vivacissimo scherzo should be a whirlwind; here it's only a strong breeze, and the gorgeous oboe melody in the trio is lethargic. The finale should burst on the scene in tidal waves of brass chords and swooping strings, but Davis's retraint holds the tide in check. NOt fatally, I should add. Wtihout being volcanic, this Sibelius Second ends with a triumphant sweep.
I am no expert in Davis's other Sibelius cycles, having owned them only for a while, but if knowledgable critics claim that this is his best Second, I don't mind agreeing. It certainly sounds grand.