Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Symphony No. 1 in E minor, Op 39 [40:18]
Symphony No. 3 in C, Op 52 [29:36]
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/Pietari Inkinen
rec. 3-5 March 2009, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, New Zealand
NAXOS 8.572305 [70:04]

This disc announces a brand-new Sibelius symphony cycle from Naxos under the baton of conductor Pietari Inkinen. At first I didn’t believe it: Naxos already has two cycles, and the number of core-repertoire works it has recorded three times is minuscule. Then I put the CD in the player and was in disbelief again: these symphonies are really conducted by the same person? The Third Symphony is excellent, finely detailed and driven forward with great rhythmic snap, while the First Symphony floats along in a solemn, murky haze.

Things get off to an ominous start with the First Symphony’s clarinet solo: played very well, but recorded too brightly, giving a smiling edge to a solo which ought to sound as if it is rising up from the depths. The main allegro takes off with insufficient forward momentum, as if the whole thing is being caught in ever-so-slight slow motion. This really begins to tell at 2:07, when the horns and timpani are curiously timid, and in the big Tchaikovskian moments in the strings afterwards, lacking in energy - especially uninspiring is the recap of this moment at 8:00. The same lazy tempi afflict the usually very violent outburst in the slow movement, the entire scherzo (here sleepy), and the oddly disjointed cataclysms of the finale. Indeed, the finale seems to get slower and heavier as it moves along, rather the way many conductors these days conduct Shostakovich’s Fifth, except that Sibelius is not Shostakovich, and the result is that the movement (Allegro molto!) becomes just tiresome.

Part of the problem, no doubt, is that Leif Segerstam and the Helsinki Philharmonic recorded this symphony only a few years ago and set a new benchmark for thrills, passion, and sheer excitement, with a finale that always seems at danger of running off the rails - and then, of course, it does, just as Sibelius wished - and imposing brass and timpani all around. Listen to the two back-to-back and Inkinen’s performance sounds a bit like a rehearsal to make sure everyone can play the notes.

There are good moments in this Inkinen First, and one great one: the second subject of the first movement is delivered with extraordinary intimacy and, when it is entrusted to the clarinet, there is a moment of actual magic (9:52-11:00). The clarinet, the harp, the trumpet, the horns sneaking in: all perfect. The New Zealand first trumpet and flute deliver especially haunting solos. But the intimacy and intensity of this moment would have been even better had they contrasted with a really tempestuous climate – the calm between storms. Unfortunately, this performance is all calm and no storms.

I started to listen to the Third with trepidation – so imagine my surprise when it turned out to be excellent! This performance actually has the necessary pacing to make the symphony work, and work wonderfully: the first movement opens up like a sunrise and is positively radiant throughout, and the finale bubbles up naturally from its humble beginnings. The “big tune” is indulged just a little bit before the symphony builds to a thoroughly impressive climax. Best of all, though, is Inkinen’s slow movement, maybe my favorite reading of this movement: time seems not to exist here, because even though the computer tells me this is a slow reading, it whisks me through a world of fantasy. There is a ghostly procession of some kind (2:10 on, aided by the lovely muted strings), and later on the flute, clarinet, and oboe contribute outstanding solos. It doesn’t get any better than this.

The most frustrating things to review are not the outright bad things but those which could have been great had just one or two elements been different. This is a hugely frustrating CD, because Pietari Inkinen’s Third Symphony is the equal of any currently available - my other favorites are Segerstam in Helsinki, Davis on LSO Live, and Olli Mustonen’s very different view on Ondine - but his First simply lacks the necessary energy. Instead, try Mark Elder’s excellent Hallé album, Davis in Boston, or, best of all, Berglund or Segerstam in Helsinki. The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra plays with consistent excellence and the engineers do a good job, excepting that over-bright clarinet solo, which makes this review even more frustrating. Can I recommend this CD? I do not think so. If you can find an mp3 download site, like ClassicsOnline or Passionato, which allows you to download the Third Symphony only, that is your best option.

The mp3 option is particularly attractive because the presentation of this disc is not inspiring. Keith Anderson has written exactly the same liner-note he wrote for the Petri Sakari Sibelius disc, with two sentences of new material but with an old grammar mistake uncorrected. There is another advantage to not buying a physical CD: if you spend too much time reading the back of the case, you will notice that the cover photo of the Northern Lights was snapped not in Sibelius’ native Finland but in Canada. Now why did they do that?

Brian Reinhart

A dull Sibelius First and a superb Third make this a hard disc to review.