Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Symphony No. 4 in A minor, Op. 63[36:20]
Symphony No. 5 in E flat, Op. 82 [32:48]
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/Pietari Inkinen
rec. 16-18 October 2008 (No 5) and 21-23 September 2009 (No 4), Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, New Zealand
NAXOS 8.572227 [69:44]
Pietari Inkinen’s Sibelius cycle continues to frustrate. His is the third set of Jean Sibelius’ symphonies to be released by Naxos, third in chronology and, so far, in quality as well. The first volume featured an impressive if undistinguished Third Symphony and a flabby, energy-less First. The present volume is just as inconsistent, for its Fourth is at times gripping but others curiously slack, and the Fifth is a gangly, awkward interpretation which feels askew and commits an unpardonable sin.
The Fourth Symphony is probably the toughest to crack in the Sibelius canon, or perhaps I say that because I’ve only warmed to it in the past twelve months. Too long I’d been put off by the nihilism, the lack of a foothold to use while ascending its bleak face. Two comparatively swift accounts, by Berglund with the Helsinki Philharmonic and Ashkenazy with the Philharmonia, provided an easier introduction to this symphony’s sound-world.
Inkinen’s account is a curious one. The opening bars are all bassoons, no cellos or basses; the cello solo afterward, though, is absolutely fantastic. One thing that has been consistently outstanding in this series has been the solo work of members of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. The remainder of the first movement actually goes extremely well; it’s the best performance on the disc, a dramatic arc of fierce intensity and moments of great beauty.
Then comes trouble. The scherzo brings a total lack of bite or attack in the string section, as if they are playing a Tchaikovsky ballet, and things start to fall apart from that point. For entries of the winds and brass Inkinen brings the tempo to a standstill, not that the scherzo was particularly “molto vivace” to start with. Clearly Inkinen intended the darkness of the second half to come as a surprise, but this is a miscalculation: it sounds tacked on! The only thing that works is the startling fade-out at the end.
The slow movement is clinical, the phrases disjointed in a way which would have really put me off when I didn’t appreciate this symphony. In some conductors’ hands this largo sounds like one massive tragic arc; in others it sounds like a series of unrelated thoughts jotted on a pad. Inkinen is closer to the latter than the former. The finale slipped in quietly with what I thought was intelligent, discreet subtlety, until it turned out that nearly the entire movement would be played with that same quiet sensitivity, which works well in some episodes and badly in others. The sad, lilting second subject around 2:45 is heartbreaking, but the engineers have, through microphone misplacement, made other portions sound like a glockenspiel concerto.
The Fifth, as I said, is awkward. It feels like a teenage boy who is a full head taller than his classmates and not yet sure how to use his bulk. What do I mean? The first movement moves strangely, clumsily, across its landscape; some moments are fast when they should be slow (2:38, 3:50), or slow when they should be fast (12:48-13:13); heroic when they should be cowed (7:30-8:05), or tender when they should be heroic (the chord at 4:51, the strings after 10:10). Where are the timpani and brass at the big transition point? Why is the coda so unexciting? Actually, I can answer that: timid horns at 13:12, lack of presence for the timpani, and the fact that the build-up beginning around 12:00 is unusually dull. The slow movement, at 9:39, feels almost like a nocturne, still and solemn: Inkinen is actually slower than Celibidache (9:21) here, let alone Davis/LSO (8:08) or Vänskä (8:47). The nocturnal feel really works, though it forces the oboist into a solo (after 8:00) that sounds forced.
In the finale, something quite shocking happens: while delivering the glorious “swan hymn”, the French horns sound ugly. I didn’t think it possible! But they have a nasty bite, a muted harshness, which boggles the mind. Intonation is suspect and the phrasing, with certain notes “pointed” and the graceful flow of the notes made clunky and fitful, is grating to the ears. Then the trumpets cut in too quickly at 6:30 and the final orchestral build-up fails to bring euphoria or a sense of entry into the heavens. Add to this the ponderous first movement, the poorly-timed final chords (too, too fast!), and slightly charmless recorded sound. Besides the timpani and glockenspiel complaints, it lacks the depth or vividness of Naxos recordings from Warsaw, Scotland, Seattle, and Liverpool.
Even in the Naxos catalogue there are superior alternatives. Adrian Leaper and the Slovak Philharmonic have turned in a surprisingly good Sibelius Fifth; the first movement is rather fast for my taste, but in the finale the Slovak horns overcome their traditional shyness and make some beautiful sounds. Better still is Petri Sakari’s recording with the Iceland Symphony, which, once you turn the volume up, is outstanding. It’s one of my top five choices for the Fifth, in fact, alongside names as illustrious as Celibidache, Berglund (EMI), and Vänskä - though behind the titanic, euphoric performance by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. The only blemish on Sakari’s account is a strange clicking sound in the finale which might be a chair squeaking but is terribly distracting and strikes at exactly the wrong moments.
Casting the net more broadly, there are far too many great recordings of these symphonies to patronize these. In the Fourth I have a special affection for Ashkenazy, but Berglund is also excellent, and Bernstein’s (NY/Sony) brings a very special touch of pathos to the final bars - though Lenny did add church bells to the finale for good measure. The Fifth Symphony is an incredibly difficult work to conduct well, but Vänskä’s reading is near-perfect technically, Bernstein’s the most satisfying emotionally, and Sakari a satisfying option at Naxos price.
All that remains to be asked is: how did Pietari Inkinen bring about such lively performances of Sibelius’ incidental theatre music (King Christian II, Scenes historiques, Kuolema) and follow them up with such overcooked recordings of the symphonies? Klaus Heymann has remarked that he only approved recording a new symphony cycle because the earlier discs were so good. The first problem was that Inkinen had previously recorded no top-drawer Sibelius, unless you count the Valse triste and Night Ride and Sunrise. The second problem was that much of this incidental music is in an old-fashioned romantic idiom, even Tchaikovskian at times, which is well-suited to a lush, low-energy approach. Anyone who conducts Valse triste with the same craggy, heroic sense of struggle they bring to Symphony No. 5 has a problem. Unfortunately, Pietari Inkinen conducts the Symphony No. 5 with the same laid-back, clarity-first prettiness he brings to Valse triste.
A Fifth with ugly-sounding horns in the finale. Is that a first?