Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Symphony No. 4 in A minor, Op. 63 (1911) [36:29]
Symphony No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 82 (1915, rev. 1916,1919) [33:05]
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/Pietari Inkinen
rec. Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, New Zealand, 21-23 September 2009 (Symphony No. 4) and 16-18 October 2008 (Symphony No. 5) DDD
NAXOS 8.572227 [69:44]

It doesn’t seem all that long ago that I was welcoming Inkinen’s disc of Sibelius tone-poems and suites, including a most exciting version of Night Ride and Sunrise. That disc and an earlier one containing the Scènes historiques demonstrated the work of an orchestra and its young Finnish conductor that showed real promise in this repertoire. Furthermore, the works on those discs have not been blessed with over-exposure and so Inkinen’s accounts were received with gratitude. This is not the case with the composer’s symphonies, however. Unlike much of his orchestral music, the symphonies have not suffered neglect. There are so many versions from which to choose and such a large number of fine performances and variety of interpretations that any new recording must provide something special if it is to justify its release. While both of the current accounts are fine in their own way, I do not find anything in them to get excited about, especially since Naxos already has excellent versions of these symphonies in its catalogue by the Iceland Symphony under Petri Sakari.

For some general comparisons of the two symphonies, which for me are Sibelius’ greatest of the seven, I have selected the aforementioned Sakari on Naxos, Osmo Vänskä’s with the Lahti Symphony on BIS (my preferred versions), Vladimir Ashkenazy’s with the Philharmonia on Decca (Symphony No. 4), and Simon Rattle’s also with the Philharmonia on EMI (Symphony No. 5).

When auditioning the Fourth Symphony, I like to start at the very end, which most conductors get wrong. Of those listed, only Vänskä keeps the tempo steady and lets the work end without drawing attention to it. Sakari and Ashkenazy both slow down slightly, but Inkinen almost ruins this otherwise convincing movement by inserting a long pause and then slowing way down to bring the symphony to a definite conclusion — not what the composer intended. For the record, Inkinen employs only glockenspiel in this movement, as do the others cited, which seems to be the norm. I recall Colin Davis using both glockenspiel and tubular bells. This most enigmatic of symphonies is difficult to interpret and sometimes less is more. On the other hand, Vänskä’s third movement is extremely slow (14:04 vs. 9:23 for Ashkenazy, 10:56 for Inkinen, and 11:12 for Sakari), but Vänskä sustains the tempo so well that the tension is nearly unbearable and very moving. Inkinen captures the barrenness well, but the final climax is full and rich with rather muddy bass, while Sakari is more withdrawn and bleaker with clearer sound. All of these conductors do well by the first movement, but the scherzo-like second movement shows more variance among these versions. Vänskä captures the mercurial spirit the best, while Ashkenazy is more dramatic and outgoing, Sakari more blended, and Inkinen more deliberate in the rhythms — even pedantic at times. Overall, Vänskä captures the bleakness and introversion of the symphony the best. Ashkenazy is more dramatic and incisive, arguably too much for the nature of the work, yet is very well played and recorded. Sakari also projects the spirit of the work well, but is rather distantly recorded — an increase in the volume setting brings the work into greater focus. Inkinen, while leaving little to desire in the orchestral playing and the recording, in no way supercedes any of the others and interpretively brings nothing really special to the work.

Much the same applies to Inkinen’s account of the Fifth Symphony. One of my favorites over the years has been Simon Rattle’s 1982 recording, with the Philharmonia, before he did his cycle with the CBSO. Listening to it again, it has stood the test of time well. Comparing the two Naxos accounts, Inkinen is more withdrawn and refined than Sakari, whose performance is more dramatic and exciting like Rattle’s. Inkinen is especially good in the quieter parts of the work where his strings excel. Vänskä is the most imposing of all and his performance is recorded with a very great dynamic range. In fact, the whirring strings in the finale that remind me of insect or hummingbird wings are barely audible here. Rattle captures the same effect within a slightly higher dynamic. Yet it is Vänskä who provides the most powerful ending, with final chords broadly spaced and the timpani imposing. Rattle is almost as good, while Sakari also spaces these chords well but slightly increases the tempo for the last two notes. Compared with these three conductors, Inkinen does not give the final chords enough emphasis in my opinion. Overall, I think he is better with the Fourth Symphony than the Fifth, if only he hadn’t slowed down the ending of the earlier work.

His first volume of the symphonies, containing Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3, also received mixed reviews. I wish I could be more enthusiastic regarding this new recording. However, I hope Inkinen will continue his series of Sibelius’s other orchestral music that is not as frequently recorded as the symphonies. Good notes by Keith Anderson and, for all my reservations, someone wanting inexpensive versions of these works could do far worse.

Leslie Wright

Inkinen offers inexpensive versions of these symphonies, but there are better to be had elsewhere.