NZSO concludes its Sibelius Symphony cycle on Naxos

SIBELIUS – Symphonies: No.6 in D Minor Op.104 / No.7 in C Major Op.105

Tone Poem: Finlandia Op.26

Pietari Inkinen (conductor)

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Naxos 8.572705

Sometimes, when listening to performances of music one knows and loves, one has to try to come to terms with interpretations markedly different to one’s own ideas. Common sense suggests that this is a healthy process to take part in – and, after all, to expect uniformity or even conformity of music-making or listening across different performances would be unrealistic, let alone undesirable. And music-making which goes against the grain of one’s expectations or particular tastes surely adds to the fascination of the whole business. 

So, am I writing a music review, here,  or some kind of philosophical rant? It’s just that, in as many instances as there are recordings, I’ve recently worked my way as a listener through performances of all of the Sibelius symphonies from Pietari Inkinen and the NZSO which have, by turns, delighted and frustrated me. Therefore, before inflicting yet another maddeningly ambivalent set of opinions upon Middle C’s readership, I think it’s about time I addressed the issue of the reviewer’s sensibilities before dealing with the intrinsic qualities of the music-making.

My own formative experiences with music criticism were with 1960s issues of the magazine Gramophone; and once I’d gotten over my period of unquestioning and unshakable faith in the opinions expressed throughout those erstwhile columns, I began to develop some independence as a reader and consumer of these opinions. There were some reviewers whose judgements I invariably trusted, finding instances where my experiences with recordings they reviewed seemed to me in accord with what they’d written. But I soon began to feel (youthful arrogance?) I could think critically for myself; and even reached the stage where, with two or three of the  reviewing “regulars”, I would unhesitatingly investigate the things they didn’t like and studiously avoid those they heaped praise on. In other words my sensibilities seemed attuned to some opinions, and in conflict with others.

But, like Pontius Pilate in the Gospel stories, who declared to Jesus Christ at one point, “What is Truth?”, I’m now inclined to shy away from absolutes – any comment I might dare to make as a critic is assigned no more status than that of “opinion” regarding music performances – and so it is with my remarks concerning these Inkinen/NZSO Naxos recordings of Sibelius. As for the particular disc under review, containing the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies of the Finnish Master, as well as his considerably earlier work Finlandia (Naxos 8.572705), I find myself, as with the others in this series, liking most things about the performances, but having to scratch my head and ponder the reasons for the music being expressed in certain ways at particular points.

By way of making further confessional gesturings, I ought to declare that I’ve been violently in love with the Sibelius Sixth Symphony even since encountering, more than forty years ago, Anthony Collins’s 1950s Decca recording (in glorious mono) with the London Symphony Orchestra. The Seventh Symphony I intensely admire, but don’t love as passionately, except when listening to Colin Davis’s amazing Boston Symphony performance; but I admit I never tire of hearing rattlingly good performances of Finlandia (my benchmark being the flamboyance of Sir John Barbirolli and a fired-up Halle Orchestra). So – in vying with these noble resonances, how do the new performances sound? And could I imagine them working equally well on their own terms?

The opening of the Sixth Symphony on the new disc sounds to my ears as if the instruments were recorded a shade too closely, the textures distractingly “edgy”, with insufficient space around and about the different strands – it makes for a slightly claustrophobic effect, one also very brightly-lit. I did get used to the sound, partly because there was so much else to enjoy – the tempi are beautifully paced by Inkinen, nicely-breathed throughout the opening, and infectiously propelled with the arrival of the allegro (the “molto moderato” allows the music time to speak with sufficient resonance). The various “pedal-notes” from winds and brass accompanying the strings’ “endless figurations” throughout the movement make for wonderful ambient colour-changes as the music surges forwards, towards a darkening of the textures as the lower strings dig into what seems like the very ground underfoot. I was hoping Pietari Inkinen would get his brass at the end to gradually intensify their ascending phrase-notes to imitate a crescendo, which, however, they don’t do – but the sounds are nevertheless nobly wrought.

At Inkinen’s beautifully-measured tempo the slow movement is for once just that (often there’s confusion over metronome markings, here), gradually unfolding with beautiful dignity and gradually-burgeoning textures, as things turn from air into water and finally into solid earth at the climax (the brass allowed some welcome “attitude” here which they’re unfortunately denied in other places in the symphony) – but this is a beautifully-realised performance. So, too, at the beginning, is the bucolic scherzo, even though I thought its dotted rhythms a bit too tightly-clamped in places – and, those delicious interactions between strings and wind need, alas, sterner interjections from the brass, I feel, than those we get here – Sibelius did talk abut the work’s “rage and passion”, which Inkinen, it seems, will have little truck with, both here and at the very end of the movement, where I feel the brass ought to be able to properly snarl, giving warning of what’s still to come (Collins’ LSO brasses from the 1950s are wonderfully goosebump-forthright, here!).

Again, Inkinen finds the “tempo giusto” at the finale’s beginning, at first a wonderful feeling of some kind of ritual unfolding, followed by a hitching up of garments and dancing at the allegro molto, Inkinen managing the music’s occasional swirling crescendi beautifully, though for my taste not allowing timpani and brass enough scope for expressing the exuberance and energy that the cadence-points cry out for – even that final vortex-like dissolution of energy and impulse could have done with a bit more snarling force (the composer’s “rage and passion” again needing a proper voice). But Inkinen makes eloquent amends with his players throughout the movement’s epilogue – the lines sing, the rhythmic patterns dance and the textures glow, with the final string phrases almost sacramental in their expressive beauty and purity.

A longer pause between the two symphonies on the disc would have been welcomed – however, in just a few seconds, the Seventh Symphony’s opening timpani-strokes (prefiguring the opening of the later tone-poem Tapiola) sound, followed by those giant’s upward steps into the “different realms” of a world-weary composer’s imagination. A wide-ranging work, despite its single movement and relatively compact structure, it contains music of both sunlight and shadow; and Pietari Inkinen’s patiently unfolding way with the first episode balances the pastoral with the epic,allowing the hymn-like themes to sing as if from the mountain-tops. Then comes the first of three majestic trombone statements (a commentator called them “peaks along a mountain range”), and though beautifully voiced, I thought the player’s sound not sufficiently “epic” – too smooth, too “civilized” to conjure up vast spaces, real or imagined. But Inkinen’s grip on things doesn’t falter, moving with impressive surety from the bleak despair of the trombone tune’s aftermath to the playfulness of the scherzo-like scamperings which follow.

The second trombone statement suggests something more baleful and threatening, introduced by swirling strings and supported by forthright echoing brasses and winds. There’s an almost heroic restraint about the playing at first which holds the listener back from being plunged immediately into a maelstrom of doubt and darkness – but there’s a powerful cumulative effect at work, so that by the time horns and timpani voice their defiance the threat of chaos is met head-on and for the moment, overcome. It’s almost Ein Heldenleben country we now find ourselves in, strings and horns echoing heroic-like motifs that speak of valorous deeds and triumphal homecomings, of romance and rest for the weary (all in a bracing Nordic C Major, of course, instead of a glowing Straussian E-flat!). But triumphs are short-lived for this Sibelian hero – Inkinen and his players vividly plot the ever-increasing urgencies and agitations (marvellous playing from both strings and winds, here – although I did wish for stronger timpani at one point), taking us to the huge crescendo that ushers in the final trombone solo, again nobly played, but I thought still needing just a touch of “bite” in the phrasing, to truly ring out. However, orchestral support burgeons promisingly, the textures both jagged and epic, building to what ought to be the composer’s most intense cry of pain in all of his music – ah! – not quite, as it turns out, here…..still, the anguish is sufficient to strongly register and release waves of resonant poignance to the resignation of the coda.

Right at the end Sibelius recovers his strength and resolve sufficiently to voice a final gesture of defiance – a kind of “Finnish Amen”, darkly launched and heroically wrought. Inkinen and his musicians give it heaps of dignity and nobility, making a sonorous conclusion to a finely-conceived performance.

I would have put Finlandia elsewhere on the disc, preferring to sit in silence at the symphony’s end. But there it is, waiting, ready to cheer us all up once again, we who’ve been immersed as listeners in oceans of Sibelian reverie, angst and stoic resignation. The performance takes its time to do so, Inkinen possibly hearkening back to the work’s original title “Finland awakes”, by way of demonstrating a kind of “sleeping giant” at the beginning (compare the startling opening attack of, for one, Barbirolli’s Halle Orchestra brasses, on a famous 1960s recording). Timpani and snarling lower brass help matters, and the strings dig into their first phrases with a will.  Matters energize once the stuttering trumpets galvanize the work’s introduction into action (I liked Inkinen’s  bringing out of the lower strings’ “seething” textures shortly afterwards), and strings and timpani give plenty of initial impetus to the music’s driving force.

This reviewer’s niggardly opinion apart, people will perhaps enjoy being “cleansed” at the disc’s end by such a life-affirming expression of joy and energy. And this Naxos recording, the last of Pietari Inkinen’s and the NZSO’s Sibelius cycle, needs, I believe, to be investigated – though the expression “Vive la difference” isn’t Scandinavian, it’s entirely apposite. For these are performances that may not completely satisfy all listening sensibilities, but they will certainly fascinate and engage, and might even (as in my case) win you over.

One thought on “NZSO concludes its Sibelius Symphony cycle on Naxos

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