BARGAIN OF THE MONTH

Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Symphony No. 6 in D minor, Op. 104 [29:23]
Symphony No. 7 in C, Op. 105 [21:12]
Finlandia [8:55]
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/Pietari Inkinen
rec. 21-23 September 2009 (symphonies) and 27 July 2010 (Finlandia), Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, New Zealand
NAXOS 8.572705 [59:28]

Naxos CEO Klaus Heymann wrote a note to Classicsonline subscribers like me to let us know about this CDís release. He said that the earlier entries in Pietari Inkinenís Sibelius cycle had ďreviews ranging from outstanding to critical.Ē Yes indeed: Iíve written both. The Second, Third and Fourth symphonies were good to very good to excellent; my doubts about Inkinenís First and Fifth, though, were certainly ďcriticalĒ. Happily, this last installment in the symphony series - there will be two more CDs of tone poems - is the best of the four. Each of the first three discs came with a serious reservation; here my only real complaint is that listening to Finlandia after the Symphony No 7 is a real profound-to-profane leap - even though it is an excellent Finlandia.

Letís talk about that Seventh, though. Inkinen manages it well, preserving the symphonyís beautiful structural arc; each episode is articulated very well, and if the final climax is not as white-hot with emotion as in other recordings, the final minute or so is managed extremely well. In particular, listen for the stringsí final notes: a four-bar phrase from forte to double-forte, in which the strings affirm with simple power the tonality of C. First they drop from D to C (20:46), then rise up to a final C major chord from a step below (20:56). Unfortunately this is obscured by mezzoforte brass, a difficulty traditionally compounded by conductors eager to spice up the ending with pounding timpani and loud brass overlay, though in fact Sibelius clearly calls for the strings to be in the lead. Pietari Inkinen is the only conductor I have ever heard ó I mean ever ó who brings out the double resolution to C this successfully. On some recordings - even Vänskäís! - the strings arenít even audible until the third note of the phrase. Also a major culprit: is Berglund on EMI. This disc surely offers one of the best, clearest readings of Sibeliusí final coda ever recorded.

The Sixth generally goes very well, again revealing that Inkinenís style is for a big-orchestra sound but a distinct emotional coolness. The New Zealand band is not quite precise enough for the readings to be called ďclinical,Ē though; the violins part ways ever so slightly on a few of the quick chords in the first movementís development. That rough edge is a little bit surprising, and so too is the backwardly balanced harp, making not much of an impression. Overall the first movement is outstanding, perfectly paced with both wintry innocence and lively spirits; the extremely slow second movement (6:25) reveals Inkinenís similarity to Osmo Vänskäís approach (6:33), although Inkinen also slows down considerably for the finale, which generally works, especially near the saddened close. Only the unenergetic final bars of the third movement are lacking in payoff.

The recording is somewhat closer and more vivid than previous issues in this series, which had given the New Zealand Symphony an unfortunately vague sound, as if heard from the back of the hall. Here the harp and occasionally the timpani are still not quite as present as they would be on a Naxos recording from Seattle or Liverpool, but we also occasionally hear pages turning, woodwind keys clacking, and (in 6.ii) somebodyís arms moving about in the right channel.

All in all, Iíd say that given Pietari Inkinenís approach to these seven symphonies, it is little surprise that this disc came off the best. He is very cool-headed, a touch on the slow side, and rather analytical without being rhythmically snappy. This made for poor readings of the First and Fifth symphonies, a very good Third, an effective Second, and a Fourth on which I still canít make up my mind. The Sixth and Seventh symphonies, especially the latter, respond well to his treatment. If Iím still not enthusiastic, itís because other conductors, especially Vänskä, have been down this interpretive road already, and because at least some of the tone poems on forthcoming volumes could easily have been added to the short playing times of this disc (59 minutes including Finlandia) and the one containing Symphony No. 2 (61 minutes). Goodness knows En Saga or Tapiola would have been a lot more interesting to hear than Finlandia.

Still, Iím glad for Inkinen and New Zealand: they at last seem to have returned to the consistent quality that marked their ScŤnes historiques, Night Ride and Sunrise, and Valse triste. This disc is, uniquely in the symphony series, an unqualified keeper, and letís hope the tone poems are too.

Brian Reinhart

Iíve been critical of Inkinenís Sibelius symphonies so far, but this Sixth is distinguished and his Seventh is absolutely mandatory.