Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Symphony No 2 in D, Op 43 [44:23]
Karelia Suite, Op 11 [17:32]
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/Pietari Inkinen
rec. 16-18 October 2008 (Symphony), 27 July 2010 (Suite) Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, New Zealand. DDD
NAXOS 8.572704 [61:55]
This is the most satisfactory volume so far in Pietari Inkinen’s new Sibelius cycle. Together with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra he presents a colorful, romantic, and well-shaped reading of Symphony No 2. The opening is slightly more propulsive than many, though later in the movement Inkinen finds ways of slowing things down and dragging out pauses in a way that’s kind of disconcerting. The slow movement goes very well, though, the scherzo benefits from a great oboe solo, and the finale is just terrific in a number of ways: the sheer amount of woodwind detail, the way that the music relaxes so naturally and peacefully around 4:00-4:40, the build-up to the end. Only the final chord is amiss: it goes on for quite some time and then ends arbitrarily, and dully, with no real sense of closure. It’s like having generated an amazing amount of excitement over the last three minutes the players all decided to treat the final chords not as a glorious “Amen!” but as a practice go at everyone trying to stop playing at the same time.
Strong points and all, I can’t really recommend this. The Second Symphony has been done so many times, and done as well as this, or better - how about Barbirolli? Vänskä? Davis/LSO Live? either Maazel disc? My question to Pietari Inkinen is: why not try something radical, something different? For example, I think it would be interesting to hear a dramatically fast, almost neo-classical account of the first movement, at a tempo in which the various melodic fragments feel radically segmented. The opening string chords would be staccato, like a cold splash of water. Maybe the result would sound good and maybe it wouldn’t - we won’t know until someone tries. And I’d rather review an adventuresome experiment, even gone awry, than just another Acceptable Performance. As Carl Nielsen once exclaimed: “Give us something else; give us something new; for Heaven’s sake give us something bad, so long as we feel we are alive and active and not just passive admirers of tradition!”
Luckily for me, Inkinen’s Karelia Suite does give us something new. He conducts the short theatrical work as if he were Celibidache: eye-openingly slow tempos, orchestral precision, consistent if lackadaisical rhythms, and wind solos held as long as possible. This flat-out fails in the first movement, where the amazingly drawn-out opening horn-call had me staring at my speakers in disbelief. I hoped the tempestuous entry of the cellos would liven things up, but no such luck. The slow movement would have fared better with more allowance for rubato and expressive phrasing; despite the spacious tempo, the opening wind phrases and violin restatement sound weirdly mechanical and metronomic. The finale is reasonably close to normal, only brought down by the lack of presence for the percussion - a problem endemic to the whole cycle.
So the Karelia Suite does earn my admiration for the way it very boldly tries something entirely new; this is Inkinen’s most individual performance in the series. I only wish I liked it. The suite was written in 1893, but is played here like inscrutable late Sibelius. The result is odd. Maybe it would have been better with more rehearsal time - it was recorded in a day - and more time for the performers to deviate from the metronome in the Ballade.
Pietari Inkinen’s recordings of the theatre music and Night Ride and Sunrise were very good; his Third Symphony was mighty fine, too. So why isn’t this Second special; why were Nos 1, 4, and 5 outright disappointments? My colleague Leslie Wright has cogently described the surprising lack of interest in this cycle so far. To his assessment, and facing this very good recording of Sibelius’ most “generic” romantic symphony coupled to a downright eccentric Karelia, all I can really add is that conducting the music of Jean Sibelius is a very difficult thing to do.
The least disappointing of Inkinen’s cycle, with a very good Second.