Jean SIBELIUS (1865 – 1957)
Symphony No.1 in E minor, op.39 (1899) [40:18]
Symphony No.3 in C, op.52 (1907) [29:36]
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/Pietari Inkinen
rec. 3-5 March 2009, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, New Zealand. DDD
NAXOS 8.572305 [70:04]

When I first played this disk I wondered exactly what Inkinen was trying to tell us. His interpretation of the 1st Symphony seemed to be at odds with what I understood this music to be about. I thought that perhaps his was some new kind of revisionist, existential, view, where the conductor stands back from the music and displays it dispassionately. I simply couldn’t make head or tail of it. After a couple of hearings I am starting to grasp the essentials of the performance. The single most important point about this performance is that Inkinen manages to dispel any ideas that this is a work heavily indebted to Tchaikovsky. He displays a Symphony which, most emphatically, is not a romantic piece in the grand manner; rather it has the kind of classical sensibility to be found in the 3rd Symphony.

In general the performance is good, but there are strange lapses. In the first movement there is, occasionally, a lack of tension which made me feel that Inkinen was more interested in the various episodes rather than the movement as a whole, and at the moment where the timpani thunder out the rhythm of the main theme, in augmentation – 08:51 – the drums are almost inaudible, thus weakening the climactic flash. Indeed, throughout the timpani are reduced to sounding like dull thuds in the distance. Also, Inkinen indulges in romantic rubato and he pulls the tempo round to suit his vision. This is at odds with his overall classical view; sometimes it jars and at other times it works. The slow movement has lots of atmosphere and well built climaxes, the scherzo is quite small in scale, and almost Schubertian, whilst the finale has a nicely paced race across the frozen wastes and the big tune soars as it should. At the end I was left with two nagging feelings. Good though this performance is, for me, there is a lack of real impetus; we’re spectators and we’re not taking part in the adventure. At times, the orchestra sounds understrung, but this, surely, must be the fault of the recording, which places the players at some distance from the microphones and the space weakens the overall effect.

The 3rd Symphony is much better suited to Inkinen’s approach. Indeed, the interpretation is more rounded than that of the 1st. The opening movement is supposed to represent fog on the English Channel and Inkinen plays the music with a slightly fuzzy, unclear, veneer which is perfect, so when the climax happens, at the start of the recapitulation the sun breaks through. We’re then in the brightest light and the music is clear and precise – but the timpani are till too backwardly balanced. The intermezzo second movement is a delight. Inkinen simply allows the music to float around the themes and weave a magical spell. The third movement, which rolls scherzo and finale into one contains a good transition from one section to the other and the latter part is made all the more powerful for the former being somewhat lightweight. The ending is all power and strength.

Although the performance of the 1st Symphony isn’t to my taste, nor does it seem to be truly well thought out, the 3rd is excellent and this alone bodes well for a complete cycle of the Finnish master’s Symphonies. The recording of the 3rd is more immediate than that of the 1st, with the orchestra closer to the microphones, and the detail clearer and cleaner.

For a truly gripping performance of No. 1. please go to the complete sets of the Symphonies by the London Symphony Orchestra under Anthony Collins, recorded between 1952 and 1955, on Beulah 1-4PD8, Berglund and the Bournemouth Symphony, on Royal Classics HR703862 or Barbirolli and the Hallé on EMI Classics CMS5 67299 2 . All of these offer excellent alternatives and insightful performances. What’s more, I couldn’t live without them.

Bob Briggs

This bodes well for a complete cycle from Inkinen and the NZSO.