Sibelius: Complete Symphonies and Kerelia Suite and Finlandia by NZSO review

by Fiona Rae / 04 February, 2012
A near-perfect set of all seven symphonies from Pietari Inkinen and the NZSO.
It makes sense for the Naxos label to record all the Sibelius symphonies with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra while they have conductor Pietari Inkinen here. This young Finn has Sibelius in his blood.

Other than his underwhelming climaxes in No 1, Inkinen hits the mark with all other six. In the finale to No 2, for instance, mediocre conductors tend to freeze the processional cavalcade of nationalistic grandeur to a standstill. But Inkinen brings a vitality to this long and repetitive shape I haven’t heard from others. It says much of him and the NZSO that this is one of the most consummate versions in a competitive market for Sibelius’s most popular symphony.

It’s the same with his No 3. String detail is crisp even in the difficult viola writing in the first movement. Hemiola rhythms underpinning the slow movement’s Slavic melody are clear, as is the finale with its horn pedal points giving strong forward momentum to the last few minutes. You won’t get a better No 3 on the market than this. Why this fresh and direct work is neglected baffles me.

There is an interesting inverse correlation between popularity and greatness in Sibelius, which reaches its peak in No 4, to my mind his greatest work, yet his least popular. How well Inkinen portrays its desolate bleakness, with the harsh dissonances of its four-note tritone motif used as melody and also chordally by trumpets, climbing up these chords like a ladder from C to F sharp major. Inkinen turns this into one of Sibelius’s most ominous moments. In the second and fourth movements, positive starts are fatalistically snuffed out by the pessimism of the pervading tritone motif. Inkinen portrays that most clearly in this sharply defined reading.

Clarity is to the fore, too, in the popular No 5, with crisp woodwind detail and the swaggering positivity of what Donald Tovey called “Thor swinging his hammer” in the finale. The self-effacing No 6, with its pastoral serenity almost hiding its intellectual subtlety, is so modest it sounds chamber orchestra-like much of the time. Inkinen exposes its motivic interrelations well.

No 7’s powerful contraction of thought creates a sense of scale well beyond its 20-minute time frame. Its most sublime section, a chorale two-and-a-half minutes in that starts with divisi eight-part strings, is blossomed out endearingly by Inkinen. I imagine No 7 might be his personal favourite. While Inkinen is here, Naxos should involve the NZSO in Sibelius’s best symphonic tone poems such as Lemminkäinen, Oceanides and Tapiola.

SIBELIUS: COMPLETE SYMPHONIES, KERELIA SUITE and FINLANDIA, New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Pietari Inkinen (conductor) (Naxos 4CDs).
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