Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Symphony No. 6 in D minor, Op. 104 (1923) [29:19]
Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 105 (1924) [21:04]
Finlandia, Op. 26 (1899) [8:55]
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/Pietari Inkinen
rec. 21-23 September 2009 (symphonies) and 27 July 2010, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, New Zealand
NAXOS 8.572705 [59:34]

The sketching and composition of Sibelius’s last three symphonies tended to overlap somewhat, so it is all the more surprising that they are so very different, one from the other. What are we to make, in particular, of the Sixth? The Fifth had its first two movements remarkably fused, and in the Seventh all four are, so it seems doubly strange, between the two, to encounter a work apparently in four traditional movements. But there’s nothing traditional about the Sixth. There are many passages of splendidly sonorous orchestral writing throughout its half-hour duration, but for the most part the orchestral sound is crystalline, almost white. I believe Sibelius himself described it as “clear spring water”. Of traditional – or even progressive – symphonic growth and development there is little, no tonic/dominant tension, no searching for resolution. There are not, in truth, even any themes to speak of. It must be the most difficult of the seven from the conductor’s point of view, so insubstantial that it risks disappearing, or at the very least, not leaving much of an impression.

In fact the impression it does leave is the one established at the very outset by the strings, lofty, cool, but immensely calm and tranquil. The music smiles its way through most of the first movement, at least until we reach the extraordinary, equivocal coda. Then in the second, what I suppose we should think of as the slow movement, what are all those rising scales trying to tell us? For all the brilliance of the writing, the scherzo is strangely muted, and the finale, which closes most satisfyingly and convincingly, is very undemonstrative for most of its length. Listening to the Sixth Symphony brings quite another kind of satisfaction than that provided by the Fifth or the Seventh, but satisfying it most certainly is, with not a single passage that could be confused with the music of another composer.

Naxos already have a very fine performance of this symphony in their catalogue, conducted by Petri Sakari, and others to seek out would certainly include the splendid, surprisingly dramatic performance from Sakari Oramo and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, originally issued on Erato. But this one from New Zealand is very satisfying in its own right. The conductor really has the measure of the work, and the orchestra plays with just the right balance of weight and transparency. As an introduction to this marvellous if perplexing work this performance will serve perfectly well.

Just as there are innumerable rival performances of the Sixth that remain unmentioned above, so there are even more of the magnificent Seventh. Indeed, one might think there is a version of each of Sibelius’s symphonies to suit the sensibility of each listener. Barbirolli brings an almost Italianate warmth to the glorious passage for strings in the early pages of the symphony, and if this is hardly authentic it is both effective and affecting. Oramo and Petri Sakari, on the two discs mentioned above, are both, once again, very fine in their different ways, and Osmo Vänskä’s performance on BIS, similarly coupled with the Sixth, is one that held me spellbound the first time I heard it and still does. No shortage of choice, then, and here is another, thoroughly recommendable reading. The rising string scales at the very opening positively glower, but the music is beautifully, and very subtly, infused with light at the arrival of the woodwinds. The pace is very measured, as it also is in the string passage that follows, and which is sumptuously played and beautifully paced here. The big trombone theme is played rather more legato than we are used to, and the balance is more realistic, the instrument more recessed and integrated into the orchestral texture than is often the case. The transition into the second section (around the 9:00 mark) is perhaps a little low key and short on atmosphere compared to starrier readings, and some might find the following section (13:00) a little breathless, but these really are marginal points, and do not detract from the overall impression of a very fine and satisfying performance. And then there are some truly marvellous moments. The magical resolution that takes place at 19:35 and the passage leading into it are beautifully handled by these forces, and I don’t think I have ever heard exactly what happens in the orchestra in the five closing bars quite so clearly as I do here.

Only a very few people will, I think, purchase this disc for Finlandia, but the others might well be pleasantly surprised to be reminded of what a marvellous piece it is. This is a fine performance, the dark, brooding opening passage giving way to the grim determination of the main body of the work. That, plus the famous, inspiring melody, will leave us with no surprise that the work was instantly adopted as a patriotic statement.

William Hedley

Fine performances of three key Sibelius works made all the more commanding at the price.