Sibelius: Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5 (CD review)

Pietari Inkinen, New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Naxos 8.572227.

The Fourth Symphony (1911) of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) is one of the man's bleaker but more-characterful works. The music always reminds me of a vast, flat, icy plain, maybe in Lapland, brooding in silence. That's the way young Finnish conductor Pietari Inkinen appears to see it, too, carving huge chunks of desolation from the music. It opens with a theme "as harsh as Fate," as the composer described it, and Inkinen follows through.

The succeeding Allegro molto vivace, which Inkinen takes rather leisurely, brings a note of great serenity to the otherwise dark proceedings, but then it also turns slightly sinister (although never threatening).

The slow Largo section Sibelius originally labeled "The Thoughts of a Wayfarer." It maintains the dour climate of the piece, with Inkinen emphasizing its mysterious nature at the expensive of capitalizing too much on its atmospheric mood shifts, instead interpreting it in a fairly static manner. In its favor, this establishes a good continuity in the music, even if it tends toward sameness.

While the final Allegro opens brightly, even cheerfully, promising a sudden change of temperament, it soon reverts to the desolation of the opening movement. Again, Inkinen is skillful at delineating these large, bleak landscapes.

Symphony No. 5, which Sibelius premiered in 1915 and revised in 1916 and again in 1919, is shorter than No. 4, here comprising only three movements. The feeling of No. 5 is far less heavy than No. 4, even if Inkinen seems to take delight in making connections to it, as though it were a continuation of the previous symphony, moving from darkness into light. The Andante is particularly delicate, and the finale, with its "swan" music, is quite sunny and attractive.

Would I give up Maazel (Decca), Davis (Philips or RCA), or Barbirolli (EMI) for this new issue by Inkinen? No, but I wouldn't turn it down, either.

Recorded in 2008 (No. 5) and 2009 (No. 4) at the Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, New Zealand, the sound is big, warm, and resonant. There isn't much depth to the orchestral stage or much punch or snap to the dynamics, yet in No. 4, especially, the sonics seem perfectly appropriate to the music. Besides, when the high percussive notes come in, they ring out all the more sweetly and persuasively through the softer sound field.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa