Connecting with Sibelius – NZSO on Naxos

Sibelius –  Symphony No.1 in E Minor Op.39 / Symphony No.3 in C Major Op.52

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Pietari Inkinen, conductor

(recorded in the Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington,

March 3rd-5th 2009)

Naxos 8.572305

Interesting that Pietari Inkinen and the NZSO chose to record these works before presenting them in concert – I had thought that the orchestra’s “Sibelius Festival” of September 2009 was the occasion for parallel recordings of the same repertoire, but it appears from the dates given on the disc that the First and Third Symphonies at least were set down some time before the concerts, in March of that year. Doubtless, Naxos’s “schedules” would have been the overall consideration in the done order of things, but I would have thought it best to have tried to capture on record some of the energy and impetus generated by the “live” performances. I have to say that the music-making on this new Naxos CD represents a pretty stunning achievement by conductor and players, as were the live concerts, of course. At the time I felt Inkinen’s interpretations and the orchestral playing, though beautifully and expertly realized, hung fire in places, though while listening to both works on CD I did feel that at certain flash-points the concert performances had a sharper focus, as if the music had been lived with for a while and the structural and emotional terrain even more deeply considered.

I do remember the beautifully-presented clarinet solo at the beginning of the First Symphony – in the concert the player was Patrick Barry, and there’s every reason to suppose that it’s the same musician on this recording. It couldn’t have gotten the symphony’s performance off to a more auspicious beginning, the last few whispered notes of the solo startlingly flooded with light and energy by the strings’ entry, the playing fervent and sonorous. Everything’s nicely caught, the mood-changes profound and atmospheric, but judiciously fitted into the music’s long-term contouring. We get a vivid sense of the work’s journeying through varied territories, pizzicati strings, winds and brass building up the excitement and tension with the development’s repeated falling melodic figure, leading to the glorious flowering of the strings’ big tune and the reprise of their opening material, grander and more epic this time round, on full orchestra. Is all perfect? – Here, and again at the movement’s end I find myself wanting a notch or two more bite, more fire in the music’s belly – those stern summoning brass calls near the end for me need to sound as though they REALLY mean business!

Following are rich, dark evocations at the slow movement’s beginning – expressive strings and wind against a sonorous brass sound. As the music moves from pastoral playfulness to epic resolve, Inkinen and the orchestra take on the challenge with ever-increasing intensity. The stormy episode trenchantly rumbles and threatens, only a slight rhythmic hiccup at the top of a string phrase (a rogue edit?) momentarily delaying a sense of those rhythms and impulses spilling over and flooding everything in the way, though the elephantine brass snarls and lower-string energies are wonderfully visceral! A Finlandia-like theme (a variant of the movement’s opening phrase) calms the storm, and takes up the dark tender song of the opening once again, singing the movement to its end – beautifully played.

Good to hear Laurence Reese’s timpani so well caught in places here, but especially in this scherzo, stunningly presented by all concerned – I liked the cheekiness of the canonic episode begun by the winds and bolstered by the strings via deftly-voiced dovetailing. Then, shortly afterwards, there’s that astonishing mood-change beautifully wrought by the horns at the beginning of the trio – so magical, like revealing a secret garden whose veil is, for a few minutes pulled back to breathtaking, alchemic effect, before being peremptorily hidden from view and the opening rhythmic patterning reaffirmed. Right at the end, I thought Inkinen could have encouraged his brasses to spit out the final phrases with a bit more temperament – again, emphasizing a kind of “this is what we’re here for” attitude, which would have had the effect of more tellingly focusing the music. The finale’s opening has tragic, but noble strings, with wind-and-brass exchanges preparing the way for spirited, urgent allegro sequences, the timpani’s crisp rhythmic patterning especially well-caught as the music drives towards crashing chords and tumbledown string figurations. The hymn-like string tune is sweet and warm, keeping emotion in reserve the first time round, then blossoming more readily at its reprise – even so, I feel it’s all a bit cool, beautifully played, but held at arm’s length. “Oh, for a muse of fire!” exclaims a Shakespearean character; and likewise I crave here and there in the playing a touch of proper incandescence.

Symphony Three follows on the disc, a work more overtly classical in structure and organization, but still with Nordic overtones, by turns bracing and melancholic. Inkinen’s very “poised” approach brings out the lines and structures clearly, trusting more at the outset to the steady spin of rhythms and melodic lines than to accenting and phrase-pointing (the strings at the opening seem almost casual, with clipped phrase-ends) – though as the performance takes hold, conductor and players draw the listener into the spell woven by the music’s tensile insistence, the playing finding ever-increasing nuance and colour as one episode leads into another (whole realms of wonderment at 2’46” for example, when a great stillness draws its cloak over the skies for a few precious moments). And by the time the opening motive gathers up its impulses and returns, unequivocally, on the full orchestra, we are here swept along with the music’s tide, the triumphal march making its point and disappearing, almost as quickly as it had come. Only a strangely lukewarm-sounding final “Amen” from brass and timpani momentarily disconcerts – the rest is truly heartwarming.

But it’s the slow movement in this performance that truly enchants – Inkinen and the players manage to at once let the music unfold, as if conjuring it out of the air, while bringing a richly-wrought storyteller’s focus to each and every phrase. Winds and strings take turns to sing the melody, while brasses lay down ineffably distant pedal-points of ambience, the whole interaction of sounds here making for a listener’s  memorable distillation of imaginative possibility. I like the truly forthright wind-playing in the becalmed central section, and a sense of the air being stirred and shaken by quickening impulses from strings and winds, whose brief, impish dance sparkles like a will-o-the-wisp in the gloaming. The sunlight returns at the finale’s opening (such beguiling winds), though remembrances from the slow movement soon begin to cloud the skies and drive the energies and irruptions towards the juggernaut-like martial theme that sweeps the work to its conclusion. Stirring stuff – even if at the very end I could have imagined a grander, more celebratory sense of arrival (the live performance seemed to convey this more tellingly), with brass and timpani allowed rather more “attitude”!  Still, on the strength of all of this, I for one will await the rest of the series with considerable expectation.

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