Sibelius: Symphonies Nos 4 & 5

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Sibelius
LABELS: Naxos
WORKS: Symphonies Nos 4 & 5
PERFORMER: New Zealand SO/Pietari Inkinen
CATALOGUE NO: 8.572227

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The first question any new Sibelius symphony recording must answer is, why? For a library-building feature some years ago, I had to confront over 40 excellent versions of the Second alone. Today there are more, even at bargain price – a daunting challenge to any rising young conductor.

After having recorded a couple of very fine orchestral discs, notably a fresh look at the King Christian music, Pietari Inkinen’s prospects seemed good. His pairing of the First and Third Symphonies, though, is something of a letdown.

Certainly these are robust, weighty readings, usually well played by the New Zealanders under a leader who is also Finnish. But against performances by conductors Sibelius heard and approved – Robert Kajanus and Herbert von Karajan for example – their account of the First sounds rather offhand, its opening movement’s dramatic gestures more calculated than powerful.

And, compared to interpreters like Colin Davis (with the Boston SO, on Philips) or Osmo Vänskä, the following movements lack poetry and energy, the Andante’s vital wind-swirling woodwinds tentative, the Scherzo’s whirling energy slack; the great finale dissipates its momentum and sags. 

Things improve considerably in the Third, however, with a taut opening and much finer pacing, the textures lean but warm, the closing Amen impressive. The second movement’s measured stride seems much more considered, the closely argued Finale motorically powerful. 

Inkinen’s second disc starts well too, with the Fourth’s bass resonance fairly shaking the speakers. This enigmatic piece, inspired apparently by a refreshing hill-country holiday but also shaded by illness and depression, demands both sombre mystery and striking sunlight in its first movement, and Inkinen does evoke them successfully if slowly, with some fine brass playing. The scherzo’s lightness turns appropriately feverish in the trio. The third movement is thoroughly reflective and haunted, but lingers a touch too long; the finale’s vitality – with glockenspiel, correctly – is well balanced against its elegiac coda. 

The Fifth opens powerfully, but the great first movement soon seems slow-footed, short of the vitality which has made this symphony so popular. When Inkinen accelerates mid-movement, it feels too abrupt. The second movement often limps a little, but the finale gathers momentum convincingly towards those chopping final chords. 

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Despite excellent moments, though, the unevenness of these couplings makes them hard to recommend. For a bargain First and Third, Naxos’s own Petri Sakari coupling is better balanced. Inkinen’s good Fourth still doesn’t beat classic interpretations like Lorin Maazel or Vänskä’s; and finer Fifths like Sakari’s or Karajan’s (also slow) are available at a similarly low price. Michael Scott Rohan