Sibelius Festival 2009 – Pietari Inkinen and the NZSO

DON QUIXOTE (R.STRAUSS) – with Gautier Capucon (‘cello)
Friday 18th September

Saturday 19th September

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra : Pietari Inkinen (conductor)

Was it a previously undiscovered ‘cello concerto by Sibelius that made an appearance right in the middle of the orchestra’s festival of the composer’s music? – alas, no! any rumours of there being a work which had somehow survived the self-critical silence of Sibelius’s last thirty years turned out to have no substance. The “cello concerto” was by the Finnish composer’s almost exact contemporary, Richard Strauss – and it wasn’t really a ‘cello concerto at all, more of a concertante work in the form of themes and variations for solo ‘cello and orchestra, with significant soloistic contributions from both viola and violin. What was it doing in one of the Sibelius Festival concerts? – Peter Walls teasingly answered a query along those lines at a pre-festival talk involving him, Pietari Inkinen and Vesa-Matti Leppanen, by saying that it was there because Sibelius never wrote a ‘cello concerto. But the orchestra had engaged French cellist Gautier Capucon to tour a programme featuring one of the Sibelius Symphonies, and Tapiola, as well as Strauss’s magnificent tone-poem Don Quixote, the concertante work.

One could have complained about this on several counts, one being that we were deprived of hearing a couple of Sibelius’s other tone-poems which could have easily filled up the concert’s spaces had the Strauss not been played. In fact, another of the problems of organising the concert was that the first item, Tapiola, wasn’t really a suitable work with which to begin the evening  – it’s too terse, austere and uncompromising a piece to set upon an audience first time up. We could have instead had En Saga or Pohjola’s Daughter, or even, as an alternative, the Four Legends, all of which would have more successfully “tuned the audience in” at the outset.

However, we would have been the poorer had Gautier Capucon not made an appearance at the concert with his performance of “Don Quixote”– not only did Strauss’s music make for a fascinating comparison with his Finnish contemporary’s (worlds apart from Sibelius’s quintessential nature-work Tapiola), but the music’s performance was outstanding. The orchestra played with a brilliance in places that was richly satisfying to experience, as was Capucon’s own complete identification with the title-role. He seemed to “live” the part of Don Quixote, expressing as much with his face and body-language as with his playing, constantly engaging and interacting with the first violist (representing Sancho Panza), the concertmaster, the conductor and the rest of the orchestra – a true piece of music-theatre. With these players in charge, the old story came to life, the music no longer having need of words to express Don Quixote’s knightly delusions.

Despite my reservations regarding Tapiola as a concert-opener, Sibelius’s masterful tone-poem was given an impressive performance, the playing readily conveying the work’s bleak austerity and dark foreboding, if underplaying the last ounce of raw savagery which depicts nature at its most elemental. I wonder whether Pietari Inkinen was simply too refined a spirit and elegant a musician to push the music to the extremes that are sometimes called for – I recall for example his mellifluous but oddly undercharacterised performance of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique earlier this year, where the same strictures seemed to apply. What impressed most here was the tension generated between strings and winds, the rhetorical opening exchanges building up a dark, brooding quality, and the tightly-focused quicksilver dialogues readily suggesting fairy laughter amidst the prevailing gloom. But for me the picture remained tantalisingly incomplete, with the brass entries towards the end having insufficient snarl and bite to evoke the forest god’s baleful presence, the dry-ish MFC acoustic perhaps partly to blame here, for the lack of ring and presence.

In the pre-concert discussion Peter Walls had remarked on Sibelius’s Second Symphony resembling a kind of detective story, with the composer sprinking clues throughout the first movement as to the nature of the whole. Inkinen and the players contributed to the compositional sleight-of-hand by keeping the opening movement moving, the strings allowed just a little room to breathe within their phrases, their warmth and richness actually making the horns sound somewhat lack-lustre in comparison. I thought the brass-writing throughout the symphony was hampered by the hall’s lack of resonance, the antiphonal calls throughout the second movement in particular having little atmosphere and spaciousness. Even so, the “mountain-tops” sequence in the same movement worked its magic, with the beautifully-played solo trumpet nicely supported by strings, winds and horns. The brass  brought out the music’s epic character with powerful chording and magnificently-controlled crescendi, a perfect foil for the answering poetry of the strings, with their “big tune”. I wanted more whirlwind recklessness from the strings with the third movement’s vivacissimo, but Inkinen and the players generated plenty of excitement in the build-up to the finale, the strings singing almost crazily throughout, and the winds making the most of their “journeying” tune on its first appearance, as did the rest of the orchestra with a magnificently-delivered build-up towards the final peroration, the brass at the end giving all they had.

And so to the final concert the following evening – three rarely-played symphonies in a single evening making a treat for Sibelians and an intriguing prospect for the uninitiated. Fittingly, I thought the concert the best of the series overall, though my judgement could well be impaired by a particular fondness for the works presented. The pieces represented the composer in different guises, classicist, polyphonist, visionary, nature-poet and epic adventurer, each symphony sharing some of these aspects but having its own strongly distinctive character. Part of the success of the evening was due to Inkinen and the orchestra bringing out that special identity held by each work, with the Seventh Symphony making a fitting climax to it all.

The Third Symphony presented the strongest possible contrast with the Second the evening before – here were restrained orchestral textures and cleanly-conceived classical lines, the voices balanced and poised throughout. Inkinen got his first movement string polyphonies to bubble over beautifully, their effervescence building up nicely to the point where the strings and winds reintroduced the opening theme with a roar and a swing; though I felt the true climax of the movement came in this performance with the “giant’s strides” of the timpani and lower strings leading away from the brass crescendo and through hushed vistas towards the ritualistic hymn-tune with its wonderfully conclusive “Amen”. The slow movement had an enchanting “other world” ambience throughout, with winds and then strings in characteristic Sibelian thirds, contrasting nicely with brilliantly melismatic recitatives from the winds in the movement’s more animated episodes. The finale’s opening pastoral playfulness featured some adroit rhythmic dovetailing from strings, winds and muted horns, before the grand processional of the final theme suddenly appeared, winningly introduced by the ‘cellos, and spreading across the rest of the strings, the different textures making for an ear-catching effect as the power and momentum of the music increased – glorious playing from all, right up to the end.

There’s an “other-world” quality about the Sixth Symphony which some people find elusive and even puzzling. Despite what seemed like a less-than ideally poised beginning from the strings, the vibrancy of the playing quickly regained the ground, the music’s timeless aspect unfolding as inevitably as the lines of a great renaissance polyphonic motet, the horns calling forth the dancers at the string-saturated climax, led by the harp’s dulcet notes and the winds’ first energising steps (how could anybody not respond to such music?)…..the slow movement similarly hinted at a parallel kind of perfection, the winds ringing the timbral changes with great point, especially the oboe, the music’s stillness-within-the-bar beautifully caught. Horns made the most of their off-the-note accompaniment, the music at once lyrical and plangent and full of character, building towards the inevitable climax and release-point with marvellous spontaneity – at the end, the elfin swiftness of the strings’ figurations transformed meditation into dance with the surest of touches.

In an ideal world I would have requested more assertiveness from the brass in the scherzo movement, though the players found more of a voice for the final flourish. And had I been Inkinen I would have again encouraged my brass and excellent timpanist to play out even more in the finale, though each of the irruptions had more weight and snap than the previous one, so that the cumulative force of the last outburst had something of a proper cataclysmic effect, if falling a little short of the  glimpse into the abyss. Inkinen and the orchestra made amends with the epilogue, the string phrases filled with visionary fervour, and everything impulsive and heartfelt, as the music seemed at one and the same time to suggest eternities while turning and glancing homeward once more. If not of unalloyed greatness, this was music-making of something approaching the highest order.

Almost straightaway, the epic, questing Sibelius was returned to us with the very first phrase of the Seventh Symphony – the NZSO’s playing had both breadth and forward impulse from the opening ascent of the strings, through the hymn-like sonorities of its opening section, and to the first of three great trombone solos, sometimes characterised by commentators as great peaks rising from a continuous mountain range.  Inkinen took his time and allowed the music to unfold, with the dancing figures evoked by timpani, strings and wind, through the skitterish play of the elements and into the rolling orchestral juggernaut of strings and timpani that prepared the way for the trombones’ second appearance, here magnificently supported by the rest of the brass, the strings tumbling and skirling with the winds after the heavy batteries had shut down. Nobly heroic horns and graceful string replies led to tricky cross-fertilisations of rhythms and motifs – Inkinen and the orchestra right on their toes throughout this section, generating excitable interactions from which grew the final trombone solo, big and imposing and lovely, with strings arching upwards and bringing tensions to fever-pitch. A shout from the brass, a cry of anguish from the strings, and the crisis passed – in the MFC it seemed as though human angst had spent itself and nature was reassuringly drifting back to its place of pre-eminence.

At the end there was applause, prolonged and heartfelt, from those of us who had witnessed Pietari Inkinen’s and the NZSO’s wondrous Sibelian journey in concert. At this point I couldn’t help thinking that some kind of ritualistic public acknowledgement of the undertaking, perhaps from some representative of the Finnish government (what about the New Zealand Government?), or even a prominent Finnish person resident in New Zealand, would have added significance to the occasion. Apart from the pre-concert discussion on the festival’s opening night, there was precious little else visible to people to help suggest that the orchestra and conductor were doing something out of the ordinary. There were no displays featuring Sibelius, Finland and things Finnish that I noticed, no flags, national costumes, photographs, art-prints (what about those beautiful Kalevala illustrations familiar to those of us who buy recordings?), and certainly no groups performing Finnish songs or dances in the MFC foyer beforehand – things that would have added colour and interest and distinction to an event described as a “festival”. Really, it was all left to the music and the musicians, whose commitment to the cause brought forth magnificent results; and whose efforts were not yet done –  several recording sessions involving these same symphonies had been scheduled for during the coming week. If the recordings manage to capture something of the excitement of what we heard on the festival’s final night, they will be a series of sound-documents well worth waiting for.

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