Sibelius Festival – 2nd concert: Symphonies 1 & 4

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pietari Inkinen

Sibelius: Symphonies Nos 1 and 4

Michael Fowler Centre, Thursday 17 September

The second of the four concerts in the NZSO’s Sibelius Festival drew a much smaller audience than the previous night, with its Finlandia and the Violin Concerto. Old story: a soloist is essential to the box office.

But because this one contained the Fourth Symphony – and the First too, which is far from merely journeyman work – and because it was played with such vision and spellbinding build-up of tension at its climaxes, this was the best of the four concerts.

I would have reversed the order of the two symphonies, because the profundity of the Fourth would have been my choice of music to carry away and to ruminate upon during the following hours.

The music to go home with was left for the First Symphony, which is a splendid work, already showing clear marks of the fully mature composer. It has been fashionable to denigrate it by hearing Tchaikovsky and others in parts of it – yes, Wagner, Schumann, too if you want – but such pursuits are usually profitless.

After all, you might argue (I would) that if you can’t hear a composer’s antecedents at least in his early works, then he is a phony, has not learned his trade.

It is simply the first great symphony (if we overlook Kullervo and the Lemminkainen Legends) on the journey of a genius, and fortunately, Inkinen sought to discover and rejoice in its strengths and its character, building tempi and phrasing in ways that best reflected those strengths, as well the overall architecture of the distinct phases, movements and the whole.

It was replete with the immaculate and expressive playing of the soloists, from the shimmering strings and the trembling clarinet of Patrick Barry [I have been corrected, having assumed, unable to see from the stalls, that it was principal, Philip Green, who did contribute at other stages]  at the opening, that immediately lifted the spirit in anticipation of a great and moving performance. At once, it can be no one but Sibelius: then bassoons and the fuller wind assemblage and Laurence Reese’s arresting timpani.

The opening of the second movement is already true Sibelius, its big rhetorical voice beautifully uttered by low woodwinds, and solo cello, magnificent in its calm. The horns over tremolo strings, a hint of Siegfried’s forest murmurs that are no longer of Wagner.

Not only does one have to remind oneself of the high virtuosity and expressive refinement of each of the wind soloists, and string principals, as they emerged, but also to wonder at the miraculous ensemble that the whole achieves. Though I do not pretend to be a student of the recorded archive, listening recently to a couple of examples has demonstrated the superb quality of the NZSO.

The Fourth invades territory that is new to Sibelius. There are sounds early in the first movement that presage the spirit of Gorecki; more use of cellos and basses than elsewhere; instead of warm woodwinds we have attenuated sounds from cellos and basses and clarinets and oboes that produce narrow, textureless sound.

Though there is a lighter spirit in movement 2, which is vivace, coloured by flutes and oboes, the symphony’s proper character returns in the third movement, long, introspective, with pauses, with protracted phrases that rival Bruckner. At its end I wanted no more. I felt this might have been Sibelius’s Bruckner 9, unfinished yet complete. In some perverse way, even though the performance was utterly persuasive, I have always wondered if the last movement is merely to meet conventions, not true to the work’s real essence.

Like most people, when I first heard the Fourth, let’s say forty years younger than I am now, I simply thought, in spite of the quiet dancing in the second movement and the lift in the last, that it represented a low point in Sibelius’s life, and I could hear only a troubled soul. I would have been immensely sad if I had died before reaching an age when I think it one of the most beautiful creations in music. And this performance, from a young man at whose age I was still unready for it, was the most profoundly moving of the entire festival.

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